Leader Grace Under Fire

Grace under fire is a coveted leadership trait. Dealing with a crisis or difficult situation can test a leader’s mettle. Many leaders have experienced “the perfect storm” in which he or she must juggle unforeseen events such as time crunches, technology difficulties or other challenges and still be effective. Psychologically these challenges can be difficult if the leader is unprepared.

The following survival guide helps leaders move through a maelstrom relatively unscathed.

Tune In: Be Self Aware

The first casualty in a crisis is one’s self awareness. It is easy to focus on external factors and fail to understand one’s own reactions, motivations and attitudes. Take a second to identify what emotions are being triggered. Usually, we have a “button” that seems to be hit when under fire. For example, one leader’s fear of being disapproved of was activated when an employee launched a complaint after a performance review. Upon reflection the manager realized that this fear was also connected to a sense of inadequacy about her performance. Having identified the emotional component activated by the situation, the leader calmed down.

Watch For Becoming Reactive

Once a leader has recognized the emotions activated by “emergencies”, he or she is less likely to become reactive. If we don’t understand how we are feeling, our decisions can become impulsive. One leader, susceptible to feeling disrespected easily, noted that when she thought staff were acting dismissive, it triggered feelings of anger and retaliation. It is important to notice what kinds of reactions appear to “naturally” erupt when you are under stress. These reactions may not be the best indicators of what to do next in a crisis. Recognizing what you feel and how that might have compelled you to react ineffectively is important.

Gain A Sense Of Self Control

Having a sense of what you are feeling and how you might react impulsively to these feelings if left unchecked, is key to gaining self control. The first order of business when a supervisor is under fire is to gain a sense of self control. This does not mean that you are controlling all the tumultuous emotions stirred by an issue at work; it means you understand yourself and your reactions to these emotions. Once you understand, for example, that you might tend to become paralyzed in your decision-making due extreme self doubt, you are in better control of yourself. This frees you to manage the situation effectively.

Use Empathy

Once you are successfully engaging in self leadership behaviours, as described above, you can better analyze the situation at hand. Your understanding of the issues to be dealt with is not clouded by a swirl of undefined emotion and reactive behaviour that can accompany crises. You are now ready to think about how subordinates are feeling and why they are reacting to the urgent matter in the way they do. Using compassion is contingent on self-understanding and taking a walk in your direct report’s shoes is the beginning of an effective problem solving sequence. For example, when a change is introduced into your department, staff will have a host of individual reactions, from irritation to feeling overwhelmed to excitement. Understanding staff reactions will help in shepherding the change.

Depersonalize The Situation

Once a leader understands staff reactions to stressful events at work, he can ensure that he does not take difficult staff behaviours and reactions personally. When leaders understand that employees’ difficulties with change are not necessarily about the leader, they can be better able to help staff adjust. This means listening closely to what staff are saying about their efforts to cope with a difficult situation.

Ask: What Is This Really About?

Are the issues you face in the department really about the introduction of a new process? Or is because people feel the system was foisted on them without their input? Are you really dealing with a lack of resources or could it be a lack of leader clarity or willingness to deal with underperformers? Is the crisis really about an overly strong union, or is the stack of grievances you face due to an unwillingness to deal effectively with a problematic supervisor? Look deeply at the issues involved in your current predicament, refrain from personalizing the problem and you’ll soon see what the next steps need to be.

Cope With Ambiguity

This is the hard part for many leaders accustomed to being in control . For a particular period of time, you will be enduring, coping with and managing a process that has a somewhat uncertain outcome. Handling upset and feelings of not being completely in control of a situation can last a while. This requires remaining self aware and non-reactive. It also means being willing to deal with uncertainty and helping staff deal with it too. The best way is to remain transparent, talk about what you know when you know it and be willing to say “I don’t know right now, but I’ll get back to you.”

Enlist Informal Networks

It’s common in a crisis to “circle the wagons” and not talk to others. This is a mistake in an urgent situation. Don’t become insular. Talk to staff with clout in the organization who can help disseminate messages about what’s going on and why. Calming voices that outline what’s been achieved convey a sense of optimism. Many staff in your department may be able to play this role but enlisting their aid by explaining what is happening and encouraging them to talk to anyone who is unsure or needs help is important.

Provide The Rationale

Answering the question in a crisis, “Why this now” is important, such as: “Why did the senior management decide on this route, what was her thinking, how did he arrive at this particular strategic solution?” When people understand why they are being asked to do a particular task, make a specific change or behave differently on the job, they are more likely to feel respected and included in the organization’s direction change. If the leader does not convey this rationale, confusion and cynicism can result. A difficulty when under fire is inertia, the issue may be pressing, but staff don’t seem to see the need for action—this is up to the leader to convey.

Positive Resolution

Through self awareness, empathy and communication with staff, leaders can move a department or staff group towards a positive resolution. It means sometimes rolling up your sleeves, digging in and knowing when this is appropriate and when it’s not. It means providing a vision for why this event is occurring and working hard to understand staff reactions. Knowing what is underneath some of the difficulties faced provides leaders access to the crux of the matter.

Facing, managing and bringing a stressful event to completion leads to a sense of efficacy on the part of leaders and staff and it all starts with leader self awareness. Difficult times are ways we are tested and leaders often shine during times of duress.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. They can be contacted at: sunmail@newmangrigg.com

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