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The Day Job: The Fired Triangle

Hello all,

First of all, I want to warn you: This one’s going over my coveted, self-imposed 1,000-word limit. Even better, there are graphics. Go get some tea or coffee, maybe some cookies, and get comfortable.


Okay. Let’s do this.

          I don’t focus too much on the Navy specifics in the Day Job series, but there’s a saying that just sticks with us from the start. “Every Sailor is a Firefighter.” If there’s one thing we all need to be willing and able to do is fight a fire at sea. There’s no help out there, and no solution other than our people, their training, and their resilience. A big part of the training is something called the Fire Triangle. In it’s most basic iteration, the triangle shows us the three things that need to come together to make fire: fuel, heat, and oxygen.

This triangle is perfect for me.
1. It’s simple
2. It contains three things, which seems to be my magic number.
3. If we remove any one item, most fires can be put out.

So, while looking back on a few days of being the bad guy and making some people perhaps reconsider a number of their decisions, I was struck with the common ingredients I’m seeing for most of our discipline issues. And no, I don’t mean this week. I’m talking about the recipe that has lead to about two-thirds of all the disciplinary cases I’ve been a part of throughout my entire career. I’m calling it The Fired Triangle.

It looks like this.

These are the basic cause for most of the truly messy disciplinary situations that get people fired.

  1. Personal problems:

           I’ve talked a lot about stress over the years in uniform, and stress is a killer. Everyone gets their turn in the wash, and when people get their first taste of the show-stopping personal issues, it’s often hard to handle. These are the adult issues we have to learn to get through: money problems, finding and maintaining healthy relationship, and family drama. The dog died, sister dropped out of college, dad is out of work, managing credits and money is harder than it looks, or we start taking on more than we’re ready for with other family members in need. These are just a few examples, and they’re pretty standard.

2. Unhealthy Distractions:

            The most common unhealthy distraction for most of us is alcohol. Specifically in my profession, many use alcohol to deal with stress. Sadly, alcohol isn’t a part of most solutions, so people looking to deal with stress are actually donating their resources in another direction, taking them away from dealing with, working through, and learning the lessons they need to about resolving with stress. Even though I’m used to alcohol as the distraction of choice, there are many others, including drugs, excessive distraction through video games and the internet, or unhealthy relationships.

            Now, since stress only compounds like interest until it’s dealt with, and distractions prevent us from dealing with it, the stress keeps piling on. Sooner or later, stress that was affecting us at home finally affects us at work no matter how well we try to control it.

3. Professional Problems

          Poor performance or poor decisions can be the classic drinking and driving that affect your ability to show up, a decision to cut corners or create unsafe conditions, tardiness because we’ve lost the work/life balance, or any other combination of factors or decisions that make our manager wonder if we’re reliable.

          Just like the original, this new triangle is simple and has three items, so I feel pretty good about it. No matter where we start in the triangle, we can hit all three low points pretty consistently. I call this the Fired Triangle because in most professions and especially in today’s job market, most people will be let go right here. We have a good reason to send a bad employee home and ten applicants to fill the position.

            For better or worse, firing people is not an option for me even when they do a full trip around the triangle, and that’s where the real learning happens. If we can affect or remove any single element of the three, we have a good chance to get things back on track. So, instead of firing people, I have to find some way to get this young man or woman back on track.

            In the Fire Triangle, the best-understood answer to put a fire out is water and lots of it. You remove heat, you put out the fire.

            After much experimentation, I can say that a fire hose won’t solve much in the Fired Triangle, but there is something that has the same chance to deal with any element we need to remove from the equation: Communication and trust. Ask for help, and trust those around you who care.

            When someone is in front of me in the bad situation, it takes some time to get to the source. We start at the endpoint, the bad decision, and we work the problem backwards through the unhealthy distractions, until we get to the source. Sometimes a person has made a few trips around the triangle before being in this uncomfortable spot, but sooner or later, we usually find the source, and that source is often a personal stressor that was unresolved.

            More often than not, all my questioning ends up at the same spot: Why didn’t you ask for help? The most frustrating part isn’t that we finally get to the source and identify the money or relationship or life situation that started it all, it’s the fact that I probably could have helped resolve that issue with a phone call six months ago. We could have just eliminated part of the triangle at the start, and I wouldn’t have to be the bad guy today.

            Please don’t think for a minute that I’m trying to pass judgement here. I’ve been around the triangle a few times myself, and it took some pretty dramatic stuff to happen for me to find myself in front of some very unpleasant people. When it was all said and done, I was being asked the same thing. Why didn’t I ask for help sooner, when it was just starting to unravel? Why did I have to wait until the whole thing fell apart, until it was far too late to fix things, to ask for help?

            I’m not sure what my answer was back then, or if I even had one, but it’s probably a lot like the one I hear from people now. It usually has to do with pride and a totally false notion that the people around and above us either don’t care or can’t possibly help or understand. Both of these ideas are false.

            When we hit one point in the triangle, we’re usually not going to get out of it without some help, which only comes when we ask. Sadly, that’s the one thing we all seem hesitant to do.

            But here’s the thing, people usually see us in trouble a lot sooner than we’re willing to admit it. The people around us want us to be healthy, happy, and successful, and they almost always stop by to ask if we need help in some way. All we need to do is confide in those who care about us, and ask for help.

– What is your distraction of choice?

– Have you reached out to someone in the past and known they need help, but they won’t confide in you?

– When someone reached out to you, why didn’t you confide in that person who obviously cared?

Related articles:
I Can Be The Bad Guy
The Not Alcohol Speech
Be Proud

Have a great week out there.

– JT

My Good Thing: After much writing and experimentation over the years, I think I’ve finally figured out what’s next for me in the grand adventure, and I’m excited. Look out, Bangor. Here I come.

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