How to spot the Firebug – one of the Four Devils of People Stuff

Let’s face it, we’re not always at our best. There are times when tempers fray, jealousy flares, irritation settles under the skin like shingles. If we are to move away from the worst part of us, we need to be able to spot the devils when they appear.

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Even from remote places, we can still bug the crap out of each other. Spot the devils early, and we can squash them quickly.

The Firebug is one of the Four Devils of People Stuff.

Chances are, we’ve been this Devil at one stage or another. When we start to look at problems, it is best to start by looking in the mirror, this keeps us from thinking we are immune to these challenges and keeps hubris (pride and arrogance) at bay.

The Firebug emerges when our beliefs and opinions are being challenged or ignored. Where our choices have been taken away from us, where change is being made to us not by us. We get fired up and vocal. 

Some of the behaviours we might see are turf wars, arguments and power struggles. 

When I moved into a senior leadership position at Outward Bound, I spent every meeting sparring with a colleague. I left fuming and irritated. We disagreed with each other’s perspective and priorities, and ended up pushing our own agendas on the table, refusing to concede the other’s point of view. I knew I was right. He felt the same way. Nothing constructive happened in these meetings. We were at a stalemate.

Eventually our CEO knocked our heads together and pointed out where we were both right. She also helped us to see that we were on the same team, both wanted the same major outcome (a successful business), and that there were many ways to skin the damned cat. 

Suitably chastened, as well as elevated by the CEO’s recognition, I worked hard to look at my colleague’s point of view. It turns out he DID have something valuable to offer, even though he hadn’t had my vast and incomparable experience…

Eventually we became friends. Now we are lifelong buddies who happily collaborate on special leadership projects. Who knew.

Why does a Firebug get triggered?

When we perceive a threat, our amygdala fires up into survival mode. This has some interesting side effects, many of which are not helpful to team cohesion and productivity. Things like: reduced cognitive ability (we start to think like an eight year old), scattered attention span, trouble focusing, difficulty learning. Not ideal for collaboration or productive and constructive conversations!

For the Firebug, the primary trigger for the amygdala is a threat to power and autonomy. If we lose the ability to make decisions, or are subject to decisions being imposed on us, then we can move into survival mode. When I was working with my colleague, I fought hard to have my decisions adopted, and fought hard against someone else’s decisions overriding mine. For my brain, it was a survival game.

As leaders, we need to be mindful of when our personal Firebug is being activated so we can work to tame it.

If it is one of our team, then we need to check if their sense of autonomy and power is being threatened. If it is, our work is to defuse the threats, or perception of the threat, so they can put the Firebug back in its box.

Where have you fallen prey to your own Firebug? When have you seen it activated in others? How did you handle it?


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