Put the Crisis Junkie in Rehab


By Liz Ryan If you work in a job long enough, it should get to be really fun. Many corporate types realize this three or four years out of school, when the fear of goofing up has been displaced by the thrill of doing creative things. If you're lucky, the fun -- and sense of achievement -- will last for years.

For many of us, the most enjoyment comes from solving problems -- the harder the better. Your adrenalin spikes. You're essential. You know you'll carry the day.

A DISASTER HIGH. It's an incredible feeling -- so much so that some people can hardly stand to be crisis-less. Tie loosened, eyes wide, the Crisis Junkie moves twice as fast as anyone else, stopping only for coffee and cell-phone calls. "Do it. Tell them I said it's gotta happen. I don't care who's upset. I know. I'll take care of it. Get New York up to speed. Get back to me in one hour. Right. I gotta go." He's like James Bond -- part intellectual, part diplomat, part outlaw, fully alive.

"Man!" you might think. "I'd love to be him someday." Wait a second, though. If you watch this guy closely, he only has one mode -- crisis mode -- and he's addicted to it.

If necessary, a Crisis Junkie will create a crisis in order to have something interesting to do. Such people feel empowered and jaunty and free and engaged when moving mountains. But for them, everything else in business is just reeeaaaaaally boring.

NOT QUITE THE MAN. There's a psychological condition that intersects with this crisis-hound phenomenon -- Narcissistic Personality Disorder. People with this illness truly believe that they're irreplaceable and uniquely gifted. When they say they can't be interrupted, they mean it -- you, by virtue of your ordinariness, have no inkling how important their work is. Mandatory 401(k) enrollment meeting? You must be joking. Don't you understand? We're in the midst of a crisis here!

Years ago, a young man like this enrolled in an eight-week management training session I taught. There was a waiting list, so if you missed two weeks without a good reason you were out. My young friend missed two of the first three sessions, I booted him, and his manager came to plead his case. "This guy is an up-and-comer," the manager told me. "He could use the training. But when things go wrong in Inventory Control, he has to be there. He's the man."

"Let's see," I said. "He has a staff of four team leaders. None of these people, whom he hired and trained, can fill in for him? He's smart enough to juggle daily disasters but not smart enough to impart his accumulated wisdom to others?"

USELESS WITHOUT A CRISIS? No doubt, being the self-appointed corporate Spider-Man is a high. The problem is, superhero behavior -- except in situations that really require it -- can hurt a company.

For one, people who thrive on crises often careen from one disaster to the next. They never focus on day-to-day operations, implementing improvements over time, or the long-term direction of their business. They're too busy battling the forces of evil -- and it's hard to move forward when you're constantly on battle alert.

Beyond that, people who live for the moment can be useless in noncrisis periods. They can't seem to get a report done or finish the quality audit or copy edit the annual report. They languish until the next fire. And when you dare to say, "The last three of these red alerts have all sprung from the same hole in our distribution process," they'll be scandalized and defensive. They don't really want to fix the problem for good, they just want that red phone to ring.

FAILING TO FOLLOW UP. I once went to a meeting where a salesperson was saluted for his bold actions on behalf of customers. According to the sales manager, this fella went right into the shipping department, grabbed two boxes off the shelf, and drove them in his own car to a customer who had been waiting two weeks. Now, that's service!

Wow, I said, I had no idea we had those kinds of shipping delays. How did the salesperson -- or his manager -- follow up? Did you circle back with the shipping department to solve the problem?

Heck no, said the salesperson, that's not my job. They need to solve their own problems.

I'm no expert on Total Quality, but I don't think you'd win any Malcolm Baldridge Awards with salespeople delivering products from their Toyotas. Real corporate heroism is more often calm and steady than loud and theatrical. Real change isn't nearly as visible as you might think. It comes more often through collaboration and experimentation than through sharpshooting and screaming into cell phones. And often, it comes slowly.

BREAKING THE HABIT. Could you be a crisis junkie? I have a little of that in me. But the older I get, the more I see the value of heading off a crisis before it hits. I don't need the adrenaline spike at work -- for that, I have a two-year-old at home who dives headlong off the back of the couch.

There's something powerful and glamorous about the late-night War Room meetings, the brinksmanship, the frantic back-and-forth faxing that a business crisis so often brings. But as with any addiction, in the light of day you eventually realize that it's time to get free.

You can conquer your adrenaline habit if you try -- if you realize that you can do a day's work without listening for an alarm every moment. So pull the needle out of your arm -- and tackle that unsexy pile of papers on your desk. You might even learn to enjoy it. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT


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