January 2015

Do you remember all those times you tried to float- before you finally learned the skill? First you would hold on to the edge of the pool and lift your leg, quickly thrashing around to bring back the feet and touch the ground in the beginning, but later gaining confidence. After sometime, you would try facing towards the centre of the pool and push yourself afloat. Most of us would have gone through at least one instance of panic and breathed in some water, while thrashing around to regain our footing- scared that we are about to drown. But imagine what happens after we learn to float and then to swim. We wonder why on earth we panicked- it seems quite difficult to actually drown.

Panic is a normal reaction when human beings are put under severe stress or pressure- when faced with a problem of many moving variables and when the wrong outcome could cause great harm.

At workplace, we face these types of situations to some degree regularly and at least a few times with great severity. The character of a great professional depends on the ability to handle these situations. When the pressure is turned on, a lot of individuals panic. Panic manifests in many ways

  1. Block out the problem- this is one coping mechanism people employ when they panic. These individuals deny the existence of the problem. They finally acknowledge it only when the issue becomes too complex to ignore and usually by this time, it is too late to solve the problem.
  2. Freeze-this is another manifestation of panic. Some individuals get shocked into petrifaction when suddenly confronted with a crisis. They do not deny the crisis, but are completely unable to take any steps to find a solution. If the person is occupying a leadership role, this can lead to an organization-wide paralysis even as disaster looms.
  3. Lose control-most people, when suddenly hit with a massive crisis, tend to lose self control and control of the situation. They scream, shout and break down in front of their colleagues and co-workers. If the leader loses control of himself in a tight situation, this tends to amplify the panic in the system and the whole organisation starts running around like headless chicken.
  4. Blame game-the first reaction of many individuals when the crisis hits is to find someone or something to blame the situation on. The result is disastrous. The cohesion of the group breaks down and every individual starts focusing on saving their own skin instead of finding a solution to the problem.

So how does an effective leader handle a sudden escalation of a crisis? Effective leaders take the following steps…

  1. Analyse what are the potential solutions with a calm and clear mind. Detaching oneself from the problem to the extent of not letting the potential negative outcomes occupy one’s mind all the time might provide the mental space required to be able to keep a clear mind.
  2. Clearly communicate the analysis to all relevant members. Most solutions to complex problems involve teamwork. It is important for the relevant team members to understand the exact extent of the problem, the potential outcomes and the potential solutions in great granularity. It is also important to ensure that there is complete buy-in for the proposed solution from the concerned team members. This can be achieved by co-creating the solution or by clearly communicating a solution and addressing any apprehensions or queries.
  3. During panic situations, the team members would look to the leader for verbal and non-verbal cues. The way the leader comports herself during a tough situation is critical to the way the team handles the pressure. It is critical for the leader to appear to be in charge at all points in time and never demonstrate self doubt or a lack of self-control.
  4. All hands need to be pulling in the same direction while solving the problem. To ensure this, it is important not to embark on a witch hunt or to try and blame an individual for the crisis. It is important to analyse the reasons so that an appropriate solution can be worked out, but it is equally important not to isolate or antagonize individuals during the problem-solving phase by pinning the fault on them. Leave the consequence management till the crisis is dealt with and is under control. However, if there is an attitude issue of an individual or a set of individuals, then swift action is required.

In a nutshell, when faced with a crisis, the leader needs to keep complete control over herself, ensure voice modulation and body language is reassuring, desist from thinking of negative outcomes, analyse the situation threadbare and formulate potential solutions, involve critical co-workers in decision making and carry them along, desist from pointing fingers during the crisis (except where there is an attitudinal problem), and after the problem is solved, learn from it and implement protective measures for the future.

The best way to learn to swim is to clearly understand that it is difficult to drown and keep the mind alert enough to be able to give specific commands to the body to relax and float when beginning to go under or to at least wriggle around and stand on your feet.

This management lesson and many other such real life lessons are highlighted in RamG Vallath’s latest bestseller book, ‘From Ouch to Oops’. To learn from RamG’s transformational real life experiences, you can buy ‘From Ouch to Oops’ from Amazon – http://bit.ly/ZYih4l as paperback or as eBook http://bit.ly/1zGgHjZ