“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
You may have recognized the quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. I love the book and the words “Don’t panic” somehow stuck with me. It may come from comedy science fiction genre but it has so much meaning in everyday life of a leader.
Society that enjoys panicking
Human beings just love panicking. It has been encoded in our brains for eons. If something surprising, unexpected, or unknown comes, the first reaction is to fight or flee. It is a matter of survival. Unfortunately, we carry this reaction with us also to workplace. Someone gives you a harsh feedback, sends you an agitated email, or mentions an unpleasant rumor and your first reaction is to over-react. Fight or flee. You immediately believe the worst possible outcome. You immediately see the others around you in the worst possible way. In your mind, they have the worst possible intentions. They have no skills, no honor, they are here to take advantage of you, and they care only about themselves. You are the hero that has to “do something” immediately or the world will end.
Don’t react, but respond
Luckily, the nature has expanded the brain over the years and aside of the limbic system responsible for your survival instincts it provides you also with a neocortex that allows you to dissociate yourself from the situation, step on a higher ground and think before you act. You don’t need to react in a given situation automatically under the influence of environment. You can chose to respond on your own terms.
There are couple of components you need to understand before you decide to respond. These components will inform you and let you make the right decision with clear mind and without emotional attachment. You should ask yourself:
- Do I understand the whole picture? – This is an obvious question. Let me illustrate on a simple example. You just got an email where the sender trashes work of bunch of other people on the team. It essentially states that the whole project the team works on doesn’t make sense, is done badly, the participants are incompetent, and at the end questions why we would spend so much money on it. What triggered that email? It was a simple request for final review of a document the team worked on. The document itself is quite fine. There are few sentences to change, but ultimately it shows a solid work of the team. So why such a violent reaction? If you would react just on what the email says you would delete the document, start from scratch, or even look for a new team. Obviously, you don’t have the whole picture. The reaction is not about the document. It is about something else. Before you chose to respond, you need to understand what you are responding to.
- Do I understand the emotions involved? – It is not only about facts. It would be great if the business was just about facts, but it is not. Businesses are run by people and people have emotions. People have needs, and cares, and dreams, and worries. You need to understand those before you respond. Who are the people involved in the particular incident and what are their motivations, and what emotions are involved? Maybe the person is not after your job but is worried about his own. Maybe the person yelling at you is not angry with you but was just yelled at by angry customer, feels deeply frustrated and you are just an innocent bystander who takes the heat. I strongly believe that people in their heart want to do the best job possible. They care not only about themselves but also about the others. We all want to be loved, respected, being taken seriously. When we act with hostility, it usually means we feel that either we, our reputation, believes, or values are being threatened.
- Do I understand my own emotions? – Now comes the most important question. If you react under the influence of fight or flee instinct you don’t understand why. You just act. You may act in a way that you will regret later since it may not solve the problem but may add up to it. If you chose to respond it means you also reflected on your own emotions. You understand not just the facts, but you also realized the emotions involved and what triggered your own reaction. You may feel angry with the person, not with the situation. You may believe that the person is attacking you and you are defensive, even though it may not be about you. To understand your own internal reaction and being able to step back and clear your own emotions before responding is the critical part of not panicking rule.
After you have successfully answered the questions above you can finally respond. But do you need to? Is your response actually needed? Very often, we feel the need to respond even when no response is sought or expected. We just want to be heard and forget to ask ourselves whether we have something useful to say. Sometimes no response or just a quiet acknowledgement is all what is needed.
When you finally decide to respond keep in mind this one basic question that allow you to defuse potentially disastrous situations where emotions run high: What do I want the outcome to be for me, for the other people involved, for the common goal, and for our mutual relationships?
Leaders don’t panic
Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean you have to contribute to every single conversation or that you have to solve every single problem. It means that you are the calm harbor in the midst of storms. You are here to lead by example, to set the tone that things are under control and they are not that bad, as they seem to be. You are here to keep focus of the team on the end goal and not get distracted along the way by relatively unimportant issues. And if you want to know more about keeping cool under stressful conditions you may want to read Leadership In The Age Of Duck.
So next time you are confronted with new unpleasant situation, or feel like you are getting angry, just stop. Step back, think about the facts, try to understand the whole picture, don’t make assumptions, and don’t try to mind read others. Rather think about your own motivation, your own emotions, your own reactions, and above all DON’T PANIC.
What is your first rule of leadership? How important “staying calm” is for a leader
Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com