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How To Manage Yourself When Your Work Goes Really Wrong

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Sometimes things go really, really wrong for leaders. A subordinate you trust that others warned you about messes up so badly that it creates an organizational crisis. A more senior leader behaves in a terrible way that you now have to explain to your subordinates. A colleague you pushed to take on a crucial new project is struggling and wants you to pick up the slack. Your plans B, C, and D have failed you.

At times like these it’s too easy to fall into one of the classic responses to a traumatic event, fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing. In a work situation this might look like picking a fight with the person you perceive to be the source of the problem, running away by dumping the problem on someone else, ignoring the problem and acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened; or by doing whatever will quiet your most challenging stakeholder in the moment, no matter what the long term implications might be.

What’s a better response? Before you can take the best next steps for the business, you have to manage yourself. Here are three ways to gain perspective, and give yourself the best chance to choose a wise action that will not create new problems on top of the original problem.

Check yourself for reactions of shame or guilt. After a major systems failure, one of my clients was beating herself up about the possibilities she should have foreseen and planned for. She considered resigning from her position because she felt guilty that such a thing had happened on her watch and she had let down both her leadership and her team members. If she had resigned, though, she would have left the company in a significantly worse position, and it was crucial that she rebalance herself to be able to recover the company’s data and handle whatever issues would now arise. We worked through three aspects of reflection to help her shift from feelings of guilt to being able to take responsibility and move forward again: to name what had been outside her control; to acknowledge where she had, in fact, stepped up; and to note any lessons for later.

Be aware of how you’re reacting to and treating others. They’ll be gauging your reactions to help determine whether they should be optimistic, frightened, depressed, or abandon ship altogether. I worked with the new leader of a nonprofit who was faced with a more negative financial picture than he had anticipated when he took the job. As he uncovered the depth of the situation and discussed it with the board, some board members wanted to slash programs and cut staff drastically to preserve dwindling funds; further, they wanted to make public declarations about how dire the emergency was to the entire donor population. The leader did make some targeted staff cuts and shut down a few peripheral programs. But to avoid turning donors off by conveying a message of no hope, the new leader maintained all the core offerings, actually added some new programs with high appeal, and created and shared a positive view of a reenergized feature. He rallied the major donors, and was able to build back both operations and emergency funds and keep the organization moving forward.

Make sure everyone knows what their part is to play, and check on their progress. One of my clients had experienced significant growth, but then hit a plateau. When I assessed the situation for the CEO, it turned out that the middle layer of management had been unofficially sharing many responsibilities as a way to manage the pressures of growth. Because it looked like all the tasks and responsibilities were being handled, the senior leadership wasn’t aware of how thin everyone was spread and the lack of clear boundaries between roles: sometimes too many people were involved in a function and in other cases, some aspects of the work were sorely neglected until there was an emergency. After we clarified and reassigned people, the workflow was streamlined, frontline staff knew which managers to go to for which issues, and the sales and marketing efforts got the necessary focus to rebuild momentum.

It can be not only disruptive, but personally hurtful when there’s a problem you can’t seem to circumvent or a failure you feel responsible for. And yet you can still find practical, successful steps to work your way out of the crisis if you give yourself the time and space to check your reactions, notice how you’re behaving with colleagues, and clarify everyone’s responsibilities going forward.

Onward and upward —


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