“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity” ~ John F. Kennedy
I sat in my office on a Sunday afternoon and the tears began to flow. I was embarrassed – but I needn't have been, there was nobody else around. I don't think I'd ever cried at work before. I was trying to clear my inbox. It numbered in the high hundreds, and they were coming in faster than I could respond. The week had been a blur of media interviews, crisis meetings and fire-fighting. I'm not sure I'd sat at my desk at all. I was exhausted – but the adrenaline was keeping me going.
The offending email – the one that started the tears – was so innocuous. I could even see how the person who sent it might think it was a good idea. But he was only on the periphery of this mess, firing off bright-ideas from the sidelines, with no skin in the game. He was trying to impress his boss (and her boss and my boss) without really having a clue what he was doing. And now it was going to be left to me to explain why it was a terrible idea.
And I was busy just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to figure out what the hell was going on – and how to fix it.
Looking back now, it sounds a bit silly. The worst of the crisis was over within four months. But the mopping up afterward took a few years. And while most days I don't even think about it, every now and then something reminds me – a former colleague, a random comment, a google search… and it all comes flooding back. I reckon I packed about ten years of career development into those two years.
Professional crises: the fire that forges the strongest careers
I've previously written about how I learnt the most about leadership from my worst bosses. Well I also learnt a lot about leadership, management and organizations from the most challenging professional crises I've experienced. But the tricky thing with a crisis is that it can sneak up on you. They're very hard to anticipate. They don't tend to announce their arrival with a foreboding toll of a sombre bell…
One of the unusual characteristics of my own career is that I seem to run into the fire. Don't ask me why – it's a mystery to me. But as a consequence, I've learnt a few things about how to recognize you're in one – and what to do about it.
Recognizing the signs… identifying professional crises
Sure – ideally you'd recognize the crisis coming, and head it off at the pass. But then, by definition, it's not a crisis. Others are blatantly obvious – an earthquake, a bio-security event, a fraud inquiry. Others can sneak up on you, like the proverbial frog in boiling water – you may not even realize it's happening. So how can you tell if you're in a crisis or not? Here are three signs to look for.
When a crisis is unfolding, more and more people focus on less and less. What would previously have been your job, suddenly has you, your boss, and two of your peers trying to figure it out. Kind of like the way a fire creates wind by drawing all the available oxygen into it, a crisis draws attention to itself and more and more senior people feel they need to be part of the analysis.
But even more subtly, sometimes it's your focus that narrows. You realise one week that the span and range of your work has completely narrowed to just one thing. The urgent is crowding out the important. The priorities you set at the start of the week haven't even been touched, let alone completed. Your inbox is more full than usual. You're missing calls. You're in endless meetings about the same topic.
When the broad, becomes incredibly narrow, this could be a sign that you're in a professional crisis.
Often your body recognizes that something is wrong before your logical brain does. You have trouble getting to sleep, or you have a slightly peculiar feeling in your tummy – like when you have to perform on stage in front of an audience. Part anxiety, part anticipation, part fear.
Your reptilian brain is incredibly skilled at spotting danger, and it cues responses in all your body's major functions before you even realize what's going on. Your breathing gets shallower and more frequent. Your heart rate increases. Digestion slows down (often resulting in not feeling hungry). And then there's the biochemistry. Glucose gets released to provide energy, and adrenaline and cortisol start being released to sustain the reponse… you know, in case you need to run away from a sabre-tooth tiger.
While a small amount of stress (especially if you are mindful of it and 'embracing' it) can be OK, your body isn't build to sustain these changes for long periods of time.
If you notice these signs in your own body, it may just be stress – a period of higher work demands or unusual workplace dynamics. But be alert that it could be a sign that something else is going on.
The thing I've observed about the small handful of genuine professional crises that I've been involved in: a strong early warning sign is that triggers and responses stop ‘matching'.
We all understand that context matters – and that is what's amiss here. Suddenly, a mundane thing that would have warranted a mundane response now requires a very special response.
One of the crises that I worked on was a payroll software implementation. There were many examples of situations where a normally minor thing that happened relatively frequently occurred, but because the context had completely changed, the normal – proportionate – response simply wasn't sufficient. For example, there was one morning where we picked up one tweet saying someone hadn't received their payslip. Normally the response would have been to contact the individual (if we knew who it was) and check they hadn't changed their email address – or suggest that they check their spam folder. Instead, we convened an urgent meeting with our vendor and started with the assumption that it was a system-wide problem.
To anyone new to the project, this would have seemed bizarre and disproportionate. For those of us that had been working in the environment for a few months, we'd naturally adjusted our expectations… like the frog in boiling water.
Coping and thriving… surviving professional crises
Unless you personally created the crisis (and sometimes even if you did) you can choose how to respond to it. I personally try to extract every ounce of development and experience I possibly can from it. Here are four ways to cope, survive and thrive your professional crisis.
Remember to breathe…
Your body simply can't handle a prolonged stress response – it becomes incredibly unhealthy. So you need to find a way to practice self-care throughout – bearing in mind that you probably don't know how long the crisis will last.
Meditate, exercise, eat well. Go for a walk. Even just pause and take some deep breaths – regularly.
Design your narrative
No matter how the crisis was created, you have the opportunity to create and tell the story you choose about what is going on around you. During the situation I referred to earlier, I regularly reminded myself that I hadn't caused it, and I was helping to fix it. In fact, I reminded myself fairly regularly that with my unique combination of skills (communication, comfort with data, excellent memory and ability to understand complex systems) there weren't many other people who could help in the way that I could.
To be clear, this wasn't about comparing myself to others, it was an internal pep talk – because there were plenty of times when I felt like walking away and going back to my day job!
This narrative also helped when people said things like “oh my gosh, are you working on that! Rather you than me!”
They also said really helpful things like “I knew this was going to fail” and “that project had all the warning signs of failure written on it”. So why didn't you do something then? Did you just think it would be funny to see what happened?
A solid narrative will help you weather the toughest moments, and position you to extract valuable skills and lessons from the experience.
Design an exit plan
Even if you never need to enact it, knowing you have a way to extract yourself from the situation is incredibly helpful. It prevents you from feeling trapped.
From the simple (I can ask to be transferred) to the slightly more extreme (I can resign) you always have options – even if they don't seem that great. The point is you need to believe it's an option, even if you hope to never need it.
Remember it's not a sabre-tooth tiger
Most things that happen at work aren't matters of ‘life and death', but your body's stress response doesn't distinguish – it treats it like it is. But unless you're a zoo keeper, chances are a large furry animal isn't about to eat you. So remind yourself “you got this” and try and enjoy the ride!
You will be learning a lot about yourself, about your colleagues, about your industry and/or profession. You won't notice these things when the crises is in full swing, but when you have the chance to reflect back afterwards, you'll see some incredible experiences that will forge you into a stronger, more resilient and more confident leader.
And who doesn't want that!