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Workplace Ladder Fuel

Nan S. Russell -- Don't assume that everything that crosses your desk in email or is passed along in the lunchroom or via twitter is true. Career success includes knowing how to prevent office fires.

Maybe you received an email seeking applicants as paid mystery shoppers in your area, or offering cash in exchange for filling out online surveys. Or you heard theaters used subliminal advertising to increase sales of popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it was the "send old shoes, get a new one free" Nike promotion that caught your attention, or the discovery that you can cure disease by drinking four glasses of water every morning.

The fact that these are all false didn't stop thousands of people from forwarding them, repeating them, or believing them. Two of these even made it into the top 25 "hottest urban legends" on Likewise, the fact that office grapevines are filled with false information, speculation, innuendo, and gossip doesn't stop people from using rumor to fuel distrust, reinforce silo building, or enhance "us" versus "them" thinking.

This workplace ladder fuel can devastate motivation and destroy work cultures as quickly as nature's fuel of underbrush, branches, leaves, and vegetation can cause a ground fire to scale trees and devour forests.

Each weekend when I pass through damage from a forest fire that came within a half-mile of our cabin a few years ago, engulfing 57,000 National forest acres, I'm reminded of the Seneca Indian proverb, "Every fire is the same size when it starts." And when it does start, that's the time for putting it out.

It's the same at work. Small fires of misinformation, half-truths, or conjecture can turn into big fires of reduced results, high turnover, or retiring on the job. So can small fires of lies, invented stories, or repeated myths.

Eliminate them when they start with accurate, timely, and ongoing dialogue. Extinguish them through transparent leadership, candid discussion, and forthcoming acknowledgement of both good and not so good news. And quench those small fires of finger pointing, blaming, and sabotage with increased accountability, big-picture thinking, cooperation, and a foundation of authentic trust.

People who are winning at working, who lead winning teams, or who work in winning cultures, understand the need to eliminate workplace ladder fuel. When sparks of doubt or distrust erupt, they address them. They don't wait for someone else to put them out, but become diligent firefighters themselves. They don't want to work in an environment fraught with fire potential.

People who are winning at working seek out the correct information and pass it along. They pick up the phone and ask the question, go to the source, or find the real answer, instead of assuming that what crosses their desk in email or is passed along in the lunchroom or via twitter is true.

Instead of a operating with lighted matches in a dry forest, people who are winning at working eliminate the matches of gossip, rumor, and inaccuracies by not passing them along, honestly addressing them, verifying accuracy, and modeling open communication.

You see, if you want to live safely in the forest, or you want to be winning at working in a thriving workplace, you must diligently, consistently, and consciously eliminate ladder fuel in your environment. Forest fires kill trees, plants, and animals. Workplace fires kill motivation, results, and careers. Want to be winning at working? Help reduce ladder fuel where you work.

Nan S. Russell has shared her workplace insights and practical wisdom with a wide variety of people, from coal miners and Navy engineers to college students and senior leaders at nonprofits and Fortune 100 corporations, igniting passions, crystalizing thinking, and changing results. She's a national speaker and consultant, an award-winning author of three books: The Titleless Leader; Hitting Your Stride; and Nibble Your Way to Success. She's a blogger for Psychology and her column, Winning at Working, can be found in over 90 publications. She's spent over twenty years in management, including as a Vice President of a multibillion dollar company, and holds degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan. For more, visit or contact Nan at

© 2013 Nan Russell

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