How to Get Through a Crisis at Work

When I was 17 my car broke down on the side of the Mass Pike out in the middle of nowhere.  This was many long years ago before cell phones (shortly after the earth cooled – I know…) so I was pretty stuck.  So of course I panicked and worried and wrung my hands which accomplished exactly nothing.  And then I had a brilliant revelation…

I realized that there would be a point in the future where this immediate crisis would be over.  No matter how bad the situation looked to me at the time, I knew that I would not be standing on the side of that highway forever.  At some point I would be back in the kitchen of my parent’s house looking back on this moment from a safe and happy place.  So from there the situation changed from “eek I’m in a bad place” to “ok how do I get from the bad place to the safe and happy place.”

Now this may seem a little silly to you right now if you’re sitting in your safe and happy place at home or at work, but when you are immersed in a crisis, all the experts say that the biggest danger is panic, and the faster you can get past the “oh sh*t” feeling and move on to the “ok let’s find a solution” mindset, the more likely you are to survive.

What does this have to do with management?  Ask BP or Toyota or any of the other big companies that have found themselves recently immersed in a corporate crisis.  As a manager your job is to pull your team through whatever comes your way.  You need to be the one that calms the panic, stops the unproductive worrying and finger pointing and moves your team into the productive process of solving the problem.

So as silly as it seems, what works for me in that moment of initial panic is to remind myself that this will be over at some point.  I don’t yet know when or how, but I do know that every crisis passes and that at some future point I will be sitting on my porch with my dog watching the sunset.  Then I concentrate on getting myself and my team there.

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  • I enjoyed your post Katy, struck a chord, particularly the final step of Robert K. Cooper’s Instant Calming Sequence…5 steps, no tapes needed, can be done in seconds. I have used it before (preventative) and during presentations (realignment) and have seen people with serious agoraphobia have success in managing that condition.

    Step 1
    Uninterrupted Breathing: Even though our ‘natural’ reaction is to actually halt breathing or take a quick breath of shock, keep breathing thoroughly. Square breathing, 4 in, 4 hold, 4 out, 4 hold is a variation that works too.

    Step 2
    Positive Face: A genuine, even small smile “resets” your nervous system so that it reacts less to negative stress. Think of the smile as a reset button…think of a bad ‘knock knock joke or remember your children at play.

    Step 3
    Balance Posture: “Natural’ reaction is to hunker down, guard yourself. Instead, shake it out, check to make sure your lungs have space to breath. Become aware of your surroundings.

    Step 4
    Wave of Relaxation: Do a tension check. Jaw clenched? Shoulders up and tight? Create a wave through your body that sends the tension out your feet. Sometimes, over tense those muscles then you can relax better.

    Step 5
    Mental Control: or “acknowledge reality.” Cooper says you have to break the pattern of negative thinking, wishing the situation weren’t happening. You can tell yourself, ‘this is temporary and it will pass,’ or ‘this sucks, I am doing the best I can, I will get through this’. Shorter version might be ‘been there, done that, still here’.

    Doc Reply
    • Thanks for the calming sequence – that’s great stuff! It’s true that by working on the physical symptoms of tension you can reduce/manage the anxiety and the mental state that comes with stress. I personally notice this the most at the dentist. Tension creeps into my arms and the rest of my body, I hold my breath, and I have to consciously focus on relaxing to make all the tension go away.

      Katy Reply
      • The dentist is a timely example. I, too, find I start doing an automatic ‘deathgrip’ on the arms of the dentist chair. I am seeing the dentist next week, will work on it.

        Also, I appreciated that you indicated reduce/manage mental states rather than ‘control’ them as I think controlling emotions is probably an illusion.

        Doc Reply

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