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Why Are You Constantly Putting Out Fires?

I have a question for you. Do you feel like you’re constantly putting out fires? Maybe so much so that you can’t actually catch up or plan ahead? If you answered yes or even “well, not all the time but definitely more than I should be,” I’m not surprised. Many of the supervisors I talk to spend way too much of their time and energy doing just that. Today we’re going to dig into all of this fire-fighting. If you want to stop running from crisis to crisis and instead create the future you want, keep reading.

When you think about really being successful in your role, what does that look like? I’ll give you a moment to get a picture in your mind…

I’m guessing for many of you it would look something like having a comprehensive program that allows you support your students and create a positive, supportive environment for you and your team. Your day-to-day routine might vary, but overall, you’d feel confident that you have a plan in place for most situations AND you’d have time in your schedule to keep up with your work, plan ahead, and calmly pivot as things change or the unexpected happens.

How does that sound? Pretty nice, right? Now some of you who have been in the field awhile, might remember a time when you could actually do that. Yes, we’ve always “worn many hats” but there were times when you didn’t wonder if you had time for lunch or a coffee break. You changed hats throughout the day but didn’t have to worry about those hats coming home with you at night most of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not been the case for most of us for quite a while. And if you’re relatively new to Higher Ed, it might seem like things have always been like this. So, what’s happening to make things feel so chaotic?

Surely living life like this isn’t effective in the long run. I mean, today’s fire might be put out, but is it really? Or is it just smoldering underground and waiting to pop up again somewhere else? I think the quote by Desmond Tutu nicely sums up the problem, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in.” If we want the fires to stop, the question we really need to be asking is what’s causing all of these fires. Today we’re going to talk about three main causes of said fires – the culture of Higher Ed, fight or flight, and our stories.

The culture of Higher Ed is a complex beast, but at the heart of it is sacrifice for students. Now at a certain level, that turns into a numbers game – enrollment, retention, endowment, etc. But where most of us operate, you’re focusing on how you can serve students so they can be successful, even at the cost of your and your team’s wellbeing. Right? I mean why else are we coming in early, staying late, bringing work home, and all the other things that drain us of our time and energy? It’s because we need our students to do well. Again, it’s in part because of the numbers, but most of us truly want to help our students do well. And that often means doing everything we can think of even if our schedule is already crammed full of the last batch of things we thought of.

The culture of Higher Ed didn’t start with us, but we perpetuate it when we buy into the status quo. We tell ourselves that this is just “the way it is” and we need to get on board to be successful at ____ institution. This culture thrives on folks being unable to set healthy boundaries. So many people we work with have difficulty saying no or advocating for themselves and even their staff…

  • When your supervisor tells you to create or implement a new program even though everyone’s already overwhelmed, what do you do?

  • When someone resigns and you’re told there’s no money to hire her replacement so the rest of the team will have to just absorb her work, what do you say?

  • When a team member comes to you and says they just can’t keep working at this pace, what do you tell them?

Most of us just suck it up and give our team the bad news. If someone’s struggling, how many of you empathize, but then say something positive like “just keep swimming” or “things will get better after we finish ____.”

Now, I’m not judging. We’re trained to be professional and to do what’s needed to support the students. And that’s how they get us, since almost everything can be tied back to helping students. The implication is if we do these things for the students, our numbers will get better. Then we can give you a raise/promotion/a new staff member. But at the end of the day, your institution is a business. If you prove you can do the work of five people with three, why would they give you more people? And we incredibly caring and professional folks just keep proving we can do more with less, so there’s no urgency to give anyone more of anything.

But why can’t we say no? Why don’t we set healthy boundaries for ourselves and our teams? Well part of it is most of us have never been taught how to set them. But another factor is related to my next main point. The vast majority of us are stuck in fight or flight – both institutionally and as individuals. Again, back to all these urgent needs for higher retention, enrollment, etc. On one level we know that our institutions are a place of privilege, but at the same time all we get are messages about how dire our situation is. I mean how many times have you been told how urgent your enrollment or retention numbers are to your institution? And when I say urgent, I mean folks implying that there will be hiring freezes, raise freezes, or even layoffs if things don’t improve? And when you hear those messages, what’s your visceral response? Do you have a sinking feeling in your stomach? Does your heart start to race? Does your mind jump to, “what will ever become of me and my family if I lose this job?” Or “I can’t let my team lose their jobs. It’s my responsibility to make sure they don’t.” Those messages (and our stories, but we’ll talk about next) kick on our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as fight or flight.

On top of all this, some of you are dealing with an ineffective supervisor who isn’t supporting you like they should. And when I say “ineffective,” I’m mostly being polite. This can range from well-intentioned but not particularly competent to toxic boss. I had an “ineffective supervisor” at my last institution. In fact, they were toxic BECAUSE they were well-intentioned but incompetent. I’ll call them Supervisor X. This individual was very student focused. And by that, I mean the student and what they wanted came first no matter what the policies or even common sense dictated. No matter what I told the student, if they didn’t like my response, most students knew they could go to Supervisor X and get whatever they wanted.

I have Strategic in my Top 5, and it was constantly triggered by this dynamic. Someone would come with a question or concern and instead of being able to do my job and move on, I’d fixate on how I could deal with the situation without involving Supervisor X. I vividly remember going to coworkers to explain the ridiculously intricate plan I’d concocted. And they would just look at me wondering what the hell I was talking about, because the thing I needed to do was so simple. But I couldn’t focus on that because I was fixated on one thing, “WHAT IF SUPERVISOR X GETS INVOLVED AGAIN?!?”

What was my problem? I was stuck in fight or flight. And the thing about fight or flight is it’s a physiological response. That’s our sympathetic nervous system in action. It hijacks your body and brain and is ONLY focused on how you can survive this crisis…even if objectively, there isn’t a crisis. In this case, I told myself that it was critical to keep Supervisor X out of these situations or there would be terrible consequences. As a result, if they did get involved in something or I thought they might, my brain and body would make terrible decisions and waste SO much of my time and energy trying to “solve” this problem. And this happened on a weekly basis, so even if it had been a while since they got involved, my brain was always on high alert for the next time. It was exhausting and resulted in some poor decisions on my part. They were usually short-term solutions that got me out of the situation temporarily – aka temporarily put out the fire but weren’t effective long-term decisions.

I would decide, think, and do things that “normal” me would never do. Think about a drowning person. When I was training to become a lifeguard, they told us that we had to be careful approaching a drowning person because they often “attack” the person coming to rescue them. When someone is drowning, they are so desperate to survive, they’ll grab on and push the life guard under water. I mean thinking about this in the safety of your office or car, you know that drowning the person there to save you would mean both of you died. But to the drowning person, their panicking body just climbs on anything nearby to get out of the water even for just a few seconds. The fact that this person will die and you’ll be in the same situation is irrelevant, because only right now matters.

The only way out of the situation is by getting out of fight or flight. Sometimes you can do this by resolving the issue permanently; sometimes you can with a short-term fix that temporarily solves the problem; or by breaking the stress response cycle through meditation, breathing, or anything that helps you flip on your parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest. You do not perform at your best when we’re in fight or flight. You just survive.

When the institutional culture is one that stresses personal sacrifice and pushes messages that everything’s urgent, we live in a constant state of stress. We run around putting out these “fires,” so no one loses their jobs or fails out of college, and we all become homeless vagrants. Our rational brain knows that’s unlikely to happen, but when you’re in fight or flight it’s absolutely that dramatic. It’s one of the reasons you have trouble setting boundaries. Your freaked out brain immediately goes to, “I can’t say no or establish realistic expectations because I’ll get fired which means we’ll lose our house and we’ll have to live in our car, unless that gets repossessed too…. Oh no! I better just do it.”

And that brings us to my last main point. The thing that drives all of this are your stories. You’re the one who attaches meaning to people, things, and situations. I had a string of stories that made me believe that Supervisor X becoming involved in any situation was going to be catastrophic. For example, I believed that all students should be held to the same standards relating to policies and rules. I believed it was a reflection on me when this didn’t happen. I believed it was therefore my duty to do everything humanly possible to keep Supervisor X out of it. This kept me on high alert most of the time – aka in fight or flight, which was exhausting on so many levels.

Eventually, I just gave up because I was exhausted and realized how much energy that took. I didn’t quit right away, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable. So, I changed the stories I told myself. Instead of fighting, I told myself that at the end of the day Supervisor X is the one who is in charge. Unless someone’s life was in danger, I’ll just stay out of the way and let Supervisor X decide everything. If a student came to me, I’d explain the policy and what I could do, then say “but if you don’t like that just go down the hall and see Supervisor X.” Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother explaining the policy and tell them to go ask Supervisor X. It took exhaustion to get my mindset to shift, but really it was liberating once I did. Nothing they were doing changed, but the meaning I gave it changed. Now this didn’t fix everything. It was still a toxic environment. But it freed up a lot of energy I could use for other things, including planning my next steps, which ultimately led me to start Strengths University.

You have stories about everything, including…

  • what it means to be professional

  • what and who you’re responsible for

  • what it means to be a good supervisor

  • when and what you should sacrifice

  • what it means to be a good parent or partner

  • what self-care means and whether you deserve any

Those stories reflect your beliefs, trigger your emotions, and drive your behaviors. The problem is, that just because you believe something, doesn’t mean its true. That means some of your stories limit you. Those stories set the parameter for your sympathetic nervous system, so they can trigger your fight or flight response – even though other folks wouldn’t see that situation as being stressful at all. My colleagues looked at me like I was being crazy when I’d come up with elaborate schemes to keep Supervisor X out of a situation, because they didn’t see what the big fuss was. The fuss was something I’d constructed in my mind.

That’s what sends you into fight or flight and makes everything seem like a crisis. That’s why it seems like you’re always putting out fires. Yes, sometimes there are legitimate fires, but more often than not they’re the result of the meaning you’ve assigned to a situation which have been inflamed (pun intended) by the Higher Ed culture and your sympathetic nervous system. That student who’s at your door and upset about a professor, their roommate, their grade, etc., seems urgent because your brain goes, “OMG! If they transfer/their parent calls my supervisor/they complain to Supervisor X, I’m going to get fired, lose my house, insert other terrible things!” So, you’re obviously going to drop what you’re doing and take care of this fire.

But most of the fires you put out aren’t fires at all. You just perceive them as fires because of the culture and your stories around the situation. Back to my earlier quote, you’re pulling people from the river who aren’t actually drowning. You just believe they are. There might also be people in there who are drowning because of the short-sighted decisions you – or others around you – made to put out a previous fire.

In order to stop this cycle, there are a few things you can do. These are in no particular order, but they are often linked, so think about them collectively if you can.

One important thing you and your team can do is to take the time to define what actually constitutes an emergency – aka fire – aka someone drowning. You react in the moment driven by your stories and the culture. There’s usually nothing to help you refocus your energy once that happens and fight or flight kicks in. But if you decide that a fire – something that deserves your immediate attention – is say, anything that involves loss of life or property damage. Now suddenly, you have a baseline for you and your team to check yourself against. Someone comes in all worked up about ____, which normally would trigger you into action. Instead, you ask yourself, “Is anyone’s life in danger? Will property be damaged if I don’t act now?” If the answer is no, then you can let that person know they’ll need to make an appointment, so you can give them your undivided attention.

If you’ve listened to the podcast for a while, you know I’m a huge advocate of frequent, consistent one-on-one meetings with your team members. That way they don’t have to make an appointment, but rather you can ask them to wait until their next meeting with you. For students or other folks, that might seem a bit trickier depending on the stories you have, but it really isn’t. You just need to decide ahead of time how those situations will be handled. Do they make an appointment with you, online, or through your assistant? Do you have several people who answer the same questions for students? If so, could you have them each man a help desk for a few hours a day? That way students always have access to the information, but not necessarily from their normal contact person, unless they’d prefer to make an appointment. This isn’t meant to disrupt those important relationships, but rather to let you and folks on your team have some uninterrupted time to get things done. I’ve mentioned before that it takes on average about 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption. If you’re constantly interrupted, that means you’re never focusing. It’s the same for your team.

The key to all of this is to define issues and their levels of importance. Then you need to set up appropriate systems to handle each of those situations. Right now, you and your folks are likely stuck in fight or flight, so you’re going to default to whatever seems like the biggest threat to your safety. Objectively, a student knocking at your door with a question or problem may not seem like a threat, but if you BELIEVE the only thing standing between you and losing your job is retention and customer service is key to retention, you’re going to have a hard time not helping that student NOW! Multiply this by a dozen students plus your staff members each day and you’re not going to get much done. Not to mention, this perpetuates this unhealthy culture and your fight or flight response.

The last thing I want to mention is challenging your stories. Hopefully you’ve been able to see how those stories can easily trigger your fight or flight response. Whenever you feel a sense of obligation - like you have no choice in the matter, you need to question that thought. It shows up in statements like I should; I must; or I have to _____. Let’s say your supervisor tells you they need you to implement a new program, even when you’re already unable to get the things currently on your plate done. You might automatically think, “My team is going to be so upset. But I have no choice. We have to do it.”

Do you? Are you and your team responsible for unreasonable amounts of work that drive your team to the brink of exhaustion? What would happen if you said to your supervisor, “You know, that does sound important. Unfortunately, we’re already stretched too thin right now. If this is a priority, we can put some other things aside and focus on this new initiative. Can you tell me what you’d like us to put on the back burner so we can do X? If this isn’t a priority, it will have to wait until we finish ___ or hire more people.”

Now this may seem like an outrageous thing to say. If so, it’s because of your stories. Some people actually do this on a regular basis. Now, does that mean your supervisor is going to be happy with this? Maybe not, especially if you’ve always just made things work in the past. But that’s what setting boundaries is. You need to know what you and your team need to perform at your best. Then you set boundaries to make sure you get those things. The current Higher Ed culture thrives on folks sacrificing themselves and not having boundaries. It reinforces your stories about self-sacrifice. But if you want things to change, you have start changing how you respond to this culture and this level of stress. You need to change your stories. You need to manage your stress, so you’re not so easily triggered by the people and situations around you. And you have to advocate for yourself and your team.

If you want to be successful, you need to create the environment and culture you envisioned at the beginning of this episode when I asked you what success would look like. If you want to be able to focus on planning and implanting programs that actually address core issues to support students, while having a positive, supportive environment for you and your team, you can’t depend on your supervisor, the administration, or HR to change things for you. They’re stuck in fight or flight too! You have the ability to create that change, you just have to challenge yourself to do so.

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