Panic Management: Keep Your Eyes on the Road

 
 
Many of us respond with a knee-jerk reaction when adversity hits, but a more considered approach is better for a successful resolution. Joshua Margolis discusses the resilience regimen.
 
 
by Dina Gerdeman

The sun was setting and a light snow falling, creating a thin white blanket that covered the winding two-lane country road stretching in front of Joshua Margolis, when he suddenly felt his 1992 Volvo give into the slick surface, pull out of his control, and veer into oncoming traffic.

As he felt panic rise, his wife, sitting in the passenger seat, said calmly: “It’s going to be fine. Just relax. Exhale. Keep your eyes on the road.”

The scare was eye-opening for Margolis, perhaps because it occurred when the United States was still reeling from 9/11 and the economy was slumping. “That was actually the moment that got me to reflect on how the world was changing, [including] the world sitting in front of me in classrooms,” said Margolis, the James Dinan and Elizabeth Miller Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

“We demonize, we retreat from the problem itself and from others who might provide counsel, and then we redouble those efforts”

He made his remarks at a recent presentation to HBS staff about how to respond to sticky situations with resilience. The discussion included a step-by-step walk-through of what to do when seemingly overwhelming adversity strikes.

“At HBS, we do a great job of teaching students how to build things … but we really haven’t had much [to offer] when the stuff really hits the fan. What happens when you’re up against it, between a rock and a hard place?”

THAT OVERWHELMING FEELING

Those thoughts set him on a journey to learn more about handling business-related adversity—unexpected obstacles, setbacks, failures, and disappointments, “situations that outstrip your immediately available set of resources, knowledge, and skills,” he said.

Managers are faced with significant challenges—a shaky worldwide economy, an increasingly globalized business world, and technologies that are constantly changing. Within that dynamic environment, a curveball can come from anywhere: a portion of their businesses may suddenly dry up, belt-tightening layoffs may loom, or strategic plans that made sense years ago may need serious rejiggering to compete in our ever-more-mobile, Internet-dependent society.

Recovering from crisis requires more than a push-button response. Source: Olivier Le Moal

Margolis, who co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article called How to Bounce Back from Adversity with PEAK Learning CEO Paul G. Stoltz, looked at how workers could face challenges head on, by becoming more resilient, building a repertoire of skills that allow them to recover quickly, and responding constructively to hardships.

“A lot of tough stuff hits us,” he told participants. “If you’re in this room, you’re facing challenges. People are asking you to do more stuff with less time. You are managing people who also face hardships and difficulties the likes of which they have not encountered before. How do I build my own resilience and how do I foster it in those I’m working with?”

Margolis said that adversity tends to spark a counterproductive response in many of us: “If the car is spinning out of control, it grips our jugular of emotion and makes this negative feeling course through our veins. We feel deflated and victimized,” he said. “We look in the mirror at coulda, shoulda, woulda, and it’s so much more tasty if we can blame someone.”

When our brains are preoccupied, he continues, we engage in counterproductive behavior. “We demonize, we retreat from the problem itself and from others who might provide counsel, and then we redouble those efforts. We do more and more of the behavior that didn’t help us in the first place.”

None of it helps clean up a workplace mess.

ADVERSITY TOOLKIT

Managers can soup up resilience in themselves as well as their teams by making a shift in how they size up a challenge. Rather than dwelling on their misfortune, resilient managers move quickly to develop a plan of action.

Margolis described a couple quick and simple tools that allow us to get a better handle on the adversity we face:

  • Write it down: Taking a few minutes to write down a problem can save all that time you might have spent commiserating with others. The act of writing allows us to feel distance from the issue and look at it more clearly.
  • Release your emotional grip on the problem: Based on a Harvard Business Review article “Pull the Plug on Stress,” by Bruce Cryer, Rollin McCraty, and Doc Childre, Margolis recommends you first recognize the emotion you’re feeling, label it, and “give yourself a time out.” Margolis said. Then put your body into your best posture, close your eyes, and visualize that you are breathing through your heart. Third, invoke a positive emotion by thinking of something you’re grateful for or a joyful memory. (Margolis likes to think of his daughter spinning around with an expression of glee on her face; or he thinks of a crucial Red Sox game and a slide into base that turned around a 0-3 deficit for the team.) Finally, ask yourself what you could do. Drawing on research he’s done with Francesca Gino and Ting Zhang, Margolis explained, “Asking people to consider what they could do helps them come up with more thoughtful solutions versus asking what they should do,” he said.

It's also helpful when adversity strikes to ask questions that examine the problem, then consider constructive approaches through the lens of four different dimensions that research on resilience and hardiness identify as crucial:

  1. Control: Which facets of the situation can you potentially influence? Think about how a person you emulate and admire would act. Then, work with your team to identify all of the areas the team can have an impact on.
  2. Ownership: Regardless of your job description, how can you step up to make the most immediate and positive impact on the issue? Think about what effect your efforts will have on the people around you. And consider what you can do to encourage those hanging back to pitch in.
  3. Reach: How big or bad do you think the problem is? Is it something so far-reaching that it may cast a shadow over all of your activities? Think about what you can do to address the potential pitfalls, as well as what you can do to maximize the potential upside. Baby steps count, so even if you can come up with something that improves the situation by just 10 percent, that’s progress. Consider the strengths and resources you and your team can develop by addressing the issue. Identify with your team what each person can do to increase the chances that things will work out.
  4. Endurance: How long do you think the situation will last? Think about what you’d like the business to look like on the other side of the obstacle. Consider what you can do in the next four hours to move in that direction. Develop a series of steps and an ongoing process for dealing with the setback. Keep your team members informed and ask for their input.

HELPING OTHERS OVER THE HUMP

When it comes to coaching, even resilient managers often have trouble helping staff members deal with a crisis. Many supervisors react with a soft, reassuring, and consoling approach, while others opt for a harder pep-talk method with a how-to guide for moving forward.

The problem: Those responses won’t equip your employees to deal with the next unexpected twist or turn.

It’s better to take a collaborative approach by asking employees questions to get them thinking about how they can take steps toward resolving their own issues. It’s a subtle role shift: As a manager, rather than looking at your job as putting someone on your back and getting them over the hill, you are changing your approach to: How can we use this hill to build your capacity to get over the next one?

“You’re not trying to fix someone,” Margolis said. “[You’re saying]: ‘It’s no longer my job as a coach to solve this for you. Let me help you use this as an opportunity to build your own capability to get stronger over time.’”

Related Reading:

Responsible Leadership in an Unforgiving World
Sharpening Your Skills: Disaster!

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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