You miss a big deadline. Your team falls short of its goal. The boss doesn’t like the results.
It feels like everything’s falling apart — possibly the end of an unraveling that’s a long time coming or a quick crisis.
“It seems as if things are constantly falling out of place,” says Mike Smith, Ph.D, CEO of John Mattone Global, and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds veteran. “Quite often, it’s not necessarily these situations that do us in, but the way we handle them. What are the best ways to keep it together when everything seems to be falling apart?”
When it’s falling apart, it’s stressful
It’s important to figure this out because, for managers, unraveling is stressful. Almost 55% of managers are already burned out over work, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index.
That’s because managers almost always have more at stake when things fall apart. If an employee or team fails, managers — regardless of the depth of their involvement — are linked to the failure and repercussions that come with it. If the fail is above them, they’re part of it because they’re in a leadership role.
But perhaps this is the best reason managers need to keep it together when things seem to be falling apart: “In times of chaos & confusion, employees look to their leaders to bring calm and clarity to the situation — which is why it’s so critical for leaders to show up in that way,” says Smith.
So when it feels like things are falling apart — or they’ve already completely dismantled — you want to take steps to reel it in and move forward effectively.
Here are six critical keys to do that:
1. Pause at the spiral
You might be able to prevent a whole unraveling if you pause when you detect a spiral. For instance, the project looks off course or the goal seems entirely out of reach.
“In that moment, look at the situation through the lens of objective reality and take emotion out of the equation,” says Smith. “When we pause and truly look at what’s going on around us, with the emotion of anxiety and stress removed, we will quickly start to see a clear path to get things back under control.”
That’s the key — back under control. It might be something as simple as a change in mindset. Or you might need to continue with these other steps.
We tend to react on instinct and with emotion when things are spiraling out of control. And that’s the wrong approach.
“Responses, on the other hand, are the results of critical thinking and analysis. Although they can’t control crises, leaders can control how they respond to them,” says Smith.
So skip “go with your gut” advice we often hear. Instead, take another pause and assess:
- Has this or something similar happened before?
- If so, how did we respond?
- What worked and didn’t work with that response?
3. Control emotions
Now is the time to be decisive. And although it may sound slightly callous, decisions must be rooted in pure logic and reasoning devoid of the feelings that often lead to clouded thinking — such as anger or sadness.
Stay composed under pressure with intentional and considerate thoughts and actions. Think and act like a surgeon, knowing the ultimate result is only achieved with a steady hand and mind.
4. Communicate well
In “Oh $#!* moments” and times of quick crisis, you likely aren’t the only one impacted. Other people — most often employees — depend on your leadership and decisions to act and eventually move on.
That’s why communication is critical.
“Clear, effective communication is a cornerstone of intelligent leadership during normal times. Its stock goes up exponentially when a crisis hits,” says Smith.
The best way to communicate well is to listen first. Find out the concerns, fears and perspectives of employees and anyone else who is affected.
Couple that with the data and experience you already have before you deliver transparent, clear answers. And remember what Optimist and Author Simon Sinek says: “Transparency doesn’t mean sharing every detail. Transparency means providing the context for the decisions we make.”
5. Leverage experts
Managers often get stuck in a cycle of putting out fires — or patching the pieces of what’s fallen apart — instead of doing what’s planned.
To get out of that cycle, Smith suggests you leverage experts and/or reliable employees around you to put out fires. Then you stay focused on the priorities, rather than get distracted by a temporary crisis. (BTW, temporary crises will diminish the more you stay on target with priorities.)
“This allows them to successfully navigate any scenario by providing sound, logical guidance without getting pulled into the flames,” says Smith.
6. Be prepared for the next time
Bottom line: Crises are seldom expected. So you want to be somewhat prepared for them.
“Even if there is only a .01% chance of a scenario coming to light, the best leaders are always prepared and flexible enough to change their focus in a moment’s notice,” says Smith.
How to prepare: Look back to a crisis that you overcame and build a blueprint from it that you can turn to when smacked with the next one. Critical to the blueprint:
- People. Who do you contact for what?
- Data. Where do you get it and what do you need?
- Time. How much time do you spend on gathering information, making decisions and executing?
- Communication. Who communicates what, how often and to whom?