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How to Stay Calm in a "Crisis" at Work

Most work crises are based in perceptions rather than objective facts.

The operative word in this title is "work." My premise is that most "crises" at work aren't really crises, they're "situations" that have been blown out of proportion. In all likelihood no one's hurt, no one's sick, no one's in danger or dying. Yet, real or not, many work situations are quickly elevated to crises and make many people just as anxious as if they actually were.

My conclusion, based on nothing but four decades in the work force, including around a quarter century in management, is that most work crises are manufactured, based in perceptions more than objective facts. Now and then you'll encounter a legitimate work crisis that has the potential to do serious harm to you and likely a lot of people. I encountered a couple of those in my career... but here I'm not talking about those. I'm talking more about things like: The wildman in the c-suite is really really angry today because sales are 0.7% below target this quarter... or the tiger lady in the corner office, she of the lovely suits and wicked temper, is about to explode because her PowerPoint didn't come out exactly the way she expected it to and the Board meeting's in an hour.

These type of situations, of which there are approximately two billion corporate variants, often involving people in high places with Impulse Control issues, are by no means enjoyable, but don't really deserve to rise to the level of crises, with the attendant rise in mass anxiety implied.

So what do you do if you're caught in the vortex of a faux crisis? A few suggestions:

Start by counting to 100 by threes. This is just a distracting tactic. Get your body in hand first, and the mind will have a better chance to follow. I say count by threes because you'll have to think about it a little, and it may at least momentarily distract you from the excitement and panic and you'll have a better chance to think clearly. Get control of your breathing, blood pressure and pulse. That's job 1: Get and stay physically calm.

Look hard for perspective. My premise, as noted above, is that most work crises—not all of course, but a great many of them—are overblown and likely driven by executives (I know because I used to be one) with no human beings in imminent danger and no serious damage about to occur. Given this (view of) reality, it becomes important for those caught in the moment to search hard for perspective. What really is going on here? Is this situation (e.g. the Board PowerPoint didn't turn out perfectly) one that should induce mass anxiety, or is it actually more of a minor problem—quite fixable—that has been amplified by personalities and a business culture accustomed to raising anxiety levels on a regular basis? So if you can try (easier said than done, I know) to gain the perspective to see things as they are rather than the size they've been magnified to, that will be a very positive first step.

Try to be the voice of reason. If you cultivate the ability to stay calm and look for reasonable constructive solutions at these moments—let's figure out a quick fix for that PowerPoint, let's examine the broader competitive sales environment, etc.—you'll find yourself respected for it. You may even gain a reputation as a go-to person in such situations, which is not at all a bad reputation to have in the business world. If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you (as Rudyard Kipling once wrote in his classic poem "If")... is a nice sentiment to keep in mind at such times. And you'll find that just staying calm yourself makes others calmer. I diligently tried to develop this mindset as best I could during my decades in the corporate world. People sometimes asked me how I stayed so calm, and the truth was I probably wasn't as calm as I looked, but if I if did manage to give that impression, it was a persona that served me well.

A decade ago I once asked someone I respected a great deal about baseball (I actually respect him about many things, but especially about baseball) exactly what made Mariano Rivera such a great relief pitcher. My friend considered the question for a moment and then said thoughtfully, "He doesn't have a pulse." Meaning of course that Rivera was able to stay preternaturally calm in what is widely considered a wickedly stressful and highly public environment—closing out a professional baseball game—and was able to routinely come up with peak athletic performances because of it. (And of course his wickedly cut fastball didn't hurt either!)

Aspiring to Mariano Rivera's level of sangfroid is probably a tall order for anyone. But if you can bring a more structured approach to workplace "crises," trying to find a more rational than emotional way into the problems, that's a solid place to start.

Distraction, perspective and reason—all can be effective crisis containment tools, especially when a crisis really isn't one.

Other helpful suggestions of tactics that have worked at work for readers? I'd be interested to hear them.

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).