Are you a workplace pyro?

The manager who makes every little problem a three-alarm fire can burn your business. Is it you?

By Patricia B. Gray, FSB contributor

(FSB Magazine) -- Even now, she winces when she thinks of the way she used to manage her staff. The only woman partner at a small biotech research firm with a roster of blue-chip clients, she found the pressure to perform intense. Her direct reports were young, bright, ambitious, eager to please. But she never trusted them to execute on their own. Every project became a crisis, every meeting a fire drill. She would make assignments at night and on weekends. When she was out visiting clients, she kept the team jumping via e-mails - each one marked URGENT, including the one about the typo in the footnote of a routine report. "I drove everyone crazy, and I didn't even realize it half the time," she says.

Cruella - not her real name - is finally getting help. For six months she has been in family therapy to deal with her overbearing behavior at home and at work. "This is something I am going to work on - seriously," she says.


But it's too late to prevent damage to her small company: In the space of just months, six of her nine staffers quit to escape her reign of terror.

Cruella is what Michael Watkins, founder of management consultancy Genesis Advisers (, calls a "pyromaniac." Pyros are bosses who compulsively light one fire after another in their organizations. These constant emergencies are highly destructive. They waste time and resources while diverting attention from the important issues facing the business. Employees become too busy to do their regular work, and while the pyromaniac boss focuses on the minutiae, the business may miss the chance to head off more dangerous long-term threats.

Does any of this seem familiar? "Entrepreneurs are among the worst pyros," Watkins says. "They're head-strong and impulsive. These qualities may serve them well creating companies but not necessarily running them." Most successful entrepreneurs obsess about details, pursue specific goals, and remain vigilant to competitive threats. But they also think of themselves as visionaries without whom the business wouldn't exist. Those traits feed the pyro habit.

There are legions of pyros out there, says Watkins, whose Newton, Mass., firm teaches leadership, with a special emphasis on business owners. Watkins first put the name "pyromaniac" to this management style in an essay posted on Harvard Business Online in March. The entry quickly generated more than 10,000 responses.

Technology enables modern-day Neros

While the pyromaniac tag may describe an age-old management style (think Nero), it arrives in the lexicon at a time when technology is making pyromania easier and possibly more common. "Technology reduces the barriers that would curb this kind of behavior," says Watkins. "Years ago, a pyro's impulses might have been dampened a bit by the effort to write a memo or pick up the phone. In contrast, think how simple it is to blast off an e-mail to five people, ten people, or even more. E-mail is a one-to-many medium that has the potential to cause a kind of reactive hysteria." Watkins calls e-mail, instant messaging, and Black-Berrys "incendiary devices."

Management gurus say that pyromania is the antithesis of true leadership. "Pyromania is a knee-jerk reaction and, ultimately, a powerfully destructive force," says John Seiffer of Milford, Conn., an executive coach who has counseled more than a few pyros. "Leadership is hard work because it requires thought and discipline and time and patience."

Seiffer had a client, a restaurant owner, who was a classic pyro. He loved being out on the floor chatting with customers and micromanaging the service. But he hated sitting at a desk in the back crunching numbers. As a result, he did not plan correctly for the seasonality of his business and, in a panic, fired employees leaving him short-staffed when the busy season came around again. To wean him off his seat-of-the-pants management style, Seiffer had the owner develop checklists that forced him to focus on long-term business issues. "Pyros fritter away their time on issues that seem urgent but are not important," says Seiffer. "CEOs address issues that are important but may not seem urgent."

The root causes of office arson

What sparks pyromania? For some, it satisfies a deep need to feel powerful and important. Others find that injecting anxiety in subordinates lessens their own. Some pyros are just suspicious that everyone is slacking off behind their backs. Creating a frenzy can be very satisfying for those who don't trust employees to put in an honest day's work.

Some cultures foster pyromania. The biotech executive says she modeled her fire-starting style on that of her first boss. They worked at a major consulting company where every summer brought a new crop of fresh MBAs to break in. "Whipping them into a frenzy of work was our way of hazing," she says. "We were just trying to weed out the ones who couldn't hold up under pressure."

While pyromaniac management may be a dandy way to find the weakest link, it is a terrible way to motivate. It demoralizes and demeans workers. The work routine becomes unpredictable and unsatisfying. Over time, the environment turns toxic. Talented workers depart, leaving a colony of sycophants who enjoy the false urgency of the daily fire drills. "Some companies have a revolving door for COOs, CFOs, and CEOs," Watkins says. "That's often a tip-off that the founder or the president is a pyromaniac."

Break the addiction to creating emergencies

Is there a cure? Watkins says the key is impulse control. Lock up the cell-phone and the other mobile devices after hours. Set a daily limit on e-mails. If that seems too unrealistic, go ahead and write the e-mails, but don't send them immediately. Instead, save them as drafts. Force yourself to wait a couple of hours - not just minutes - then reread and ask yourself if the matter is as urgent as it seemed when you first thought of it. Practice some restraint in your messages. Don't call it urgent unless there's blood. Remember that exclamation points are banned for everyone but prepubescent girls. And don't use BOLDFACE CAPITALS unless there's a bomb in the building.

Kicking the pyro habit is not easy. Recently, when Cruella was out of town for a speech, she decided at the last minute that she really needed new data and called her assistant back at the office. "I had him jumping for 16 hours," she says. "But that doesn't really count as pyromania. I needed more data. Cutting-edge data. After all, we're a data company. He should have known that before I got on the plane."

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