Last week was not a good week for me. It started out great as we had our company holiday party out in the mountains. It was a fun time connecting with everyone and soaking up the vibes from a great company culture. But perhaps too much fun as Tuesday I got sick.
I’m not good at being sick. My first reaction is always “I’m okay … I’ll get through this”. My wife would also tell you I’m not good at being sick because I won’t let anyone take care of me. If I do I might have to admit that I need help, and something in my ego tells me this isn’t a good idea! I usually suffer in silence, inwardly lamenting how I feel and longing for the day I will feel better.
But this wasn’t that kind of bug. I went down hard with this one. Fever. Headaches. Aching joints. Even my hair (what little I have) hurt. And for some reason I couldn’t sleep. Which left me dealing with a very unpleasant situation.
At first, I did everything I knew to make myself feel better. I took with pain killers. I drank a lot of water. I went to the doctor. I rested. But I still felt really lousy. I arrived at a place where I actually had to make a choice about how I wanted to be.
Did I want to react negatively to how I was feeling by feeling sorry for myself, being angry, blaming others for their germs, worrying about worst-case scenarios? Or did I want to accept simply that at that time I was sick, that was reality and it would pass when it would pass. In short, could I choose to be present with being sick.
It occurred to me the next day when the fever had passed and I was a bit more functional that this situation isn’t much different from when we encounter challenging situations at work.
Sometimes they are simple challenges, and what we know will solve the issue and we can move on. But other times, the situation is more complex or serious, for example a major project that has encountered big issues or a profitability crisis within our company. The type of problem that you know you may have to live with for a while.
What I began to think about was how important the ability to be present with our situation in tough times is to emerging from the other side at least undamaged and perhaps even stronger for the experience.
- Move to acceptance quickly – I’ve read that dogs deal with pain so well because they simply see it as their current reality that they cannot change, so they accept it and live with it quickly. Uncomfortable situations at work are the same. The expression “it is what it is” comes to mind, and the faster we shift from denial to acceptance means we will more quickly shift into the mode of helping fix the situation
- Do everything practical to make the situation more tolerable – sometimes we fear the worst, but when we look at a situation it isn’t as bad as we thought. There may be a number of things we can do to make the situation better. In the example of a project gone bad where we may have to work extra hours, we might be able to shift our working schedules to accommodate families, change our dress code for comfort or identify tasks in our regular work that can be passed on to others.
- Get present, stay present – when the situation isn’t ideal, it doesn’t help to long for “the good old days” or a promised future state to be here now. We can only act on the issue right now, and if our attention is elsewhere we won’t be anywhere near as effective. Use whatever techniques are effective for you to bring yourself back to the here and now so you can get back to using your well developed skills. My go-to techniques are simple breathing / muscle relaxation meditation and exercise.
- Nurture your connections with others – when we are under stress it is all to easy to feel like we are on our own, that it is all on us to deal with the hand that has been dealt to us. While the work may be ours to do, if we look around there are probably others on our team that are either in the same boat, or empathize with what you are going through. By reaching out to colleagues and friends to keep our feelings of connection with others alive we will feel that much more resilient. No matter what the crisis, make time in your day to enjoy good people and derive joy and energy from them.
- Break it down – I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The same is true for significant challenges at work. There almost certainly isn’t one genius stroke that will simply make it go away. It’s best if we break it down, prioritize things to make sure that quick wins and high-impact actions get addressed first and then take on one sub-challenge at a time.
As leaders, we have our normal responsibility to ensure that our teams are looked after and that we guide them to approaches like that above that will make them more likely to succeed, But in crisis, that may only be half of the equation. Our teams want to see that we understand their pain, and that we are doing everything in our power to ease it, including taking some of it on ourselves. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but in crisis situations leaders who shift their focus from task and prescriptive direction to team welfare and facilitation will likely find that their teams fare better than those who focus on results and accountability.