The email stung. It was from a colleague about our last meeting. I thought we had resolved everything. We talked about what didn’t work with the last project, what we learned from it, and what we would do differently. I walked away feeling good that we could have a positive outcome from a less-than-positive deliverable.
Yet, just thirty minutes later, that same colleague sent me a long, negative email about everything that didn’t work about our project. As I read through the four paragraphs, I got angrier, not just at the content but also at how long it was. A practice I have always tried to follow and expect from my teams is that if an email is more than one paragraph, you probably should discuss it in person.
I began to write an email back but was interrupted when my boss poked her head in my office (remember those?). Knowing me as well as she did, she could see by my face and furious typing that something was up.
“How’s it going?”
“Fine,” I said. “I just need to get this email off.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if you waited until the morning?” she said smiling, calmly, knowingly.
So, I stopped, took a breath, looked up, and realized she was right. I decided instead to set up a meeting with the colleague to discuss his email in person (remember that?). Thank goodness I did. Because this colleague and I realized immediately it was all a misunderstanding and we cleared it up in two minutes.
Many of us have been in similar situations. Some turn out like this. Some turn into negative email spirals that take days, even weeks to unravel. The difference between those two situations? Choice.
Instead of reacting to my colleague’s email and escalating tensions and misunderstanding, I chose to respond. Respond vs. react is a choice I’ve tried to apply throughout my entire twenty-plus-year career in HR coaching leaders, facilitating teams, and designing organizational systems. It’s what I coach leaders and clients to do. It’s what I coach friends and family to do. And, yes, sometimes it’s what they must remind me to do, too.
Given the state of the world, I’ve been looking for as many reminders of productive mental health practices as I can. This led me to re-read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning just last week. Its pages hold harrowing accounts of his time in a Nazi concentration camp. They also hold one of the greatest testaments to (wo)man’s ability to find meaning in even the most unimaginable of circumstances.
I had read the book twice before, both times when I was still a student, when much of it was over my head. This time—especially in this moment of crisis—so much more of Frankl’s awe-inspiring insights sunk in. One quote in particular struck me, and it was this:
“Everything can be taken from a (wo)man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”
I’m typing this article from the safe comfort of my home. I have work. I have my health. Nothing about my circumstances right now remotely compares to what Frankl endured.
Yet, living through a pandemic is harrowing in its own way. We are grieving so much loss—loss of life. Loss of employment and financial stability for many. Loss of freedoms. Loss of familiar structures to our days. Loss of simple pleasures. Loss of visiting family, hugging nieces and nephews, catching-up with friends over dinners out. Loss of graduations and ceremonious endings we earned. Loss of a sense of safety we are now realizing we took for granted. Loss of stability in our businesses or the ability to future-plan.
But we have not lost our freedom to choose.
For leaders, this power of choice is particularly important. Leaders set the tone and serve as models. Through their decisions, leaders have the effect of amplifying already-heightened stress or defusing it.
In 2020, little of what leaders do goes unnoticed—or un-posted somewhere. A few weeks ago, a junior banker at PJT Partners (a boutique mergers-and-acquisitions advisory) anonymously took to social media to expose his boss’ callousness. The boss emailed his team at 3am requesting changes to a pitch deck. At 6:38am, one of the junior team members responded saying that they were all sleeping at 3am, but were working to make the changes. The boss responded with, “I sleep average [sic] of 5 hours or less. Expect the same or more of my junior team, especially on live deals. Please turn my comments and work as fast as you can."
As you can imagine, this has gone viral and become a PR nightmare for PJT Partners. One that could have easily been avoided with a choice—the choice to respond thoughtfully vs. react emotionally (and maybe not be on email at 3 AM).
When we are under significant stress—as most of us currently are, with the ever-present din of fear and uncertainty in the background—the power to choose may be our secret weapon. We can choose how we feel about information, the actions we take when learning something upsetting, and how we treat people. This matters because as leaders our choices directly impact how engaged and motivated our teams are. It also matters because when we make the wrong choice, odds are high it will go public and backfire in dramatic, embarrassing fashion.
To develop a habit of responding vs. reacting, I offer five tools to consider:
Breathe: When you confront stressful information or have a stressful conversation, always do this first: take three deep breaths, five seconds in, five seconds out.
Empathy: Get into the other person’s world. What are their concerns? Fears?
Pause: If you can and if pertinent, wait a few hours before responding. Better yet, arrange to respond via phone call or video chat. As I learned earlier in my career, so many misunderstandings can be avoided or effectively cleared up through live conversations.
Communicate: What communication tools can you implement to help your teams respond instead of react? (E.g. Google Docs to capture concerns or notes, asking effective questions, listening actively) and what communication tools do you recommend your teams NOT use? Slack, email, text, even some social media platforms, almost seemed designed for reactive states. Phone calls may seem antiquated or inefficient, but will likely lead to a better outcome in the long run.
Learn: Share stories and learnings with your team on how issues got resolved in a constructive manner. Share what you learned and discovered about different points of view and communication styles.
In these current circumstances working remotely and dealing with social isolation, speaking in person isn't always possible, but it is still important to have a pathway for people to speak up about misunderstandings, questions, etc. Whether you are holding regular all-hands Q&As, or are using anonymous tools like AllVoices, giving employees a safe place to share concerns in a constructive way where leaders can mitigate directly.
AllVoices is an effective platform to this end. It gives employees a place to share concerns in a safe way while also mitigating damage to employees and the company. Yet, as AllVoices brilliantly knows, it is up to leaders to unlock the power of the platform and create a safe environment in which it's OK for employees to share these concerns constructively and in a way that lends to a solution. It’s no mistake that the companies that have implemented AllVoices are also the ones working to create a safe and compassionate workplace, in times of crisis and beyond.
All eyes are on leaders, and, really, each other during this time. We are writing this playbook together. Why not do so in a way that capitalizes on our freedom to choose while also taking accountability for our choices?
The power to choose is in our hands and available at every moment. No one can take that from us.
Melissa has been an executive at high-growth companies for over twenty years. She is now Principal of Daimler Partners, working as an advisor, facilitator, and executive coach. Her primary focus is helping leaders define and operationalize culture.
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