As a leader, you’d probably prefer to spend your days on the fun stuff—the wins, the successes, the good news about the latest product launch, or the excellent way the team collaborated. But the reality is that moments of celebration and acknowledgement tend to be fewer and more fleeting than you might expect. You’re more likely to spend your day dealing with the things that break down.
This fact doesn’t have to be bad news. In fact, breakdowns are often the sweet spot of innovation and the situation where you can make the biggest difference.
What distinguishes the exceptional leaders from the really solid leaders is not how they treat the good news, but rather how they treat the “bad” news. It takes a great deal of self-awareness, compassion, and focus to turn the breakdowns throughout your day into “breakthroughs”: moments where you and your colleagues turn the conversation from one of disappointment and potential decline into one of constructive, forward-motion and momentum.
This happens not just in the “how” of a leader’s response, but also in the “who.” That’s right. I said “who.” As in, who are they when people bring them the news? And who are they in response to the people who bring it to them? Who you are is as important as what you do.
Here’s a question that you might want to ask yourself: Who are you when you receive less than positive news?
It takes honest self-reflection to answer. There are a number of predictable, automatic reactions:
· Angry and upset.
· Wondering, and maybe even seeking, who is to blame?
· Wanting to “kill the messenger.”
· Fearing that you made a mistake, feeling the need to defend your position.
· Needing to be right about how you worried all along that this might happen.
It is absolutely human to experience any, or all, of the above reactions. But they don’t need to dictate our actions. In fact, the most effective leaders ensure that these reactions are not what guides their next move. Most of us want our efforts to make a difference; so when things break down, it is disappointing, upsetting and unpleasant. How we respond can make the difference between constructive and destructive action at a most critical time: when things aren’t going the way we wanted them to go!
Here are some simple, (but admittedly not easy!) steps to take to ensure that you are at your most effective when confronted with a breakdown situation:
- First, catch yourself in the reaction. Depending on your particular, habitual reaction pattern you will either be in a fight, flight or play dead state. The adrenaline rushes, the cortisol surges, and before you know it, you are in the midst of an “amygdala hijack.” Get familiar with how that feels to you. Do you get a surge of energy and anger when situations go awry? Do you experience a state of fogginess and confusion, wanting to shut down? Do you experience fear and anxiety? Or perhaps worry about your image and the potential for embarrassment?
- Next, take a deep breath. Feel your fingers, your toes, and focus on fully inhabiting your physical body. Take some time to let your nervous system reset (this can feel like hours but in fact usually only takes a few minutes).
- Ask the following questions to ground the situation in a factual, objective dialogue.
a) What are the facts? (Measurable, observable situation facts)
b) What are we committed to?
c) What works and is making a difference?
d) What doesn’t work?
e) What is missing
f) Is there anything else we should know?
- After thoughtfully exploring the above questions, it will become clear where the most effective actions can be taken. Then, ensure that the people who will take the actions have what they need to move forward.
Practicing the above steps will build your capacity for resilience, and will ensure communication and forward motion within the team.
Just as importantly, you will have minimized any residual damage in relationship that is caused by upset, finger-pointing and searching for the guilty. Those reactions are common, but they create dissension and fear at the very time when you need all hands on deck, courageously and openly communicating through the crisis. That is what separates response from reaction. Reactions are automatic and we are often unaware of them, while responses are thoughtful, rational and based in self-awareness.
Simple. But not easy. Especially when things break down. Which they always do. The really great leaders become aware of their internal reactions, but what they act upon is a conscious response.
Author’s note: this article draws on the author’s experience of more than 20 years of application of concepts and tools from Generative Leadership Group, LLC
 The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, his first book on the subject. The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain, which regulates the fight or flight response. When threatened, it can respond irrationally. A rush of stress hormones floods the body before the prefrontal lobes (regulating executive function) can mediate this reaction.