Remaining calm at work and being able to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and pressure as a new leader can be an extremely useful skill. I find that particularly in the world of large projects or consulting, there is a lot of pressure to achieve outcomes as well as a high degree of ambiguity around the work being undertaken.
What direction should we go in? How should we do it? Why has it been done this way? This doesn’t make sense, am I an idiot?
For many people, this can be overwhelming and not at all enjoyable. If people see you remaining calm at work in times of high uncertainty and stress, then you’ll likely appear to be more competent than your peers, even if it’s all an act! This blog post gives the magic equation of Calmness + Competence = Signs of confidence, which I think is true. You only need signs of confidence, you don’t actually need to be confident!
I myself am fortunate to have the sort of face and demeanour that appears calm in most situations, even when I don’t feel that way. I’ve often received feedback that I’m “always calm”. Sometimes I remember the situation much differently and in reality, I was stressed to the eyeballs, confused and wanted to curl up in a ball in the corner until somebody else figured the whole thing out.
Over time I’ve developed a set of thought patterns and behaviours that I use to remain calm, predominantly by taking the pressure off myself. I hope they’re useful to you too, because I’m convinced that remaining calm at work (in a non-life threatening career situation, anyway) is a learned skill, strengthened by experience.
Remaining calm by realising you have been chosen for a reason
In most cases, when you’re leading a new team, you’re going to need to figure things out. Meet the people. Find out what work your team is doing. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Think back to a time when you’ve been in a similar ambiguous situation and how you overcame it. If you didn’t overcome it, how did it go wrong and how can you do better? Remind yourself that you would never have been chosen for this role if you couldn’t handle it. You’ve shown promise and you’re alive and kicking after all.
In almost all situations, even if you fail miserably, the world will continue to turn and you’ll still be in it, alive. The things that your boss is screaming about don’t *really* matter most of the time. I know it doesn’t feel that way sometimes, but reminding yourself of this can help you to remain calm to get the job done.
What, you haven’t been in a situation like this before? Fantastic! That means that when you get through it, next time you will have done this before and you can look back on this moment.
Remaining calm by making a plan
One of the most calming things you can do is to make a plan to solve a tricky problem. Sit down and brainstorm a list of things you don’t know or understand, then list the questions you would need to have answered to gain an understanding. Verify the list with a peer or a manager if you can.
Sometimes stressful or new situations can be overwhelming, so taking a quick time out to go to the bathroom can be a good place to regroup. Yes, I’m serious. Nobody is going to stop you going to the toilet (in most situations!) and it’s a good quiet place to collect your thoughts and develop a quick fire plan of action.
You’re in good shape now, because you have a list of unknowns and questions. You are in a far better position with your documented list. Why? Because when you know what you need to do, you will know whether you’re in trouble, or you just have a lot of work to do. Before you made the list, you didn’t even know what was happening – now you have achieved some clarity. If the situation really is dire, then now is the time to raise it – as early as you can.
Putting structure around the situation makes you appear calm, confident and methodical. This often gives confidence to people around you too.
Remaining calm by asking questions until the situation makes sense
Sometimes when you come in to lead a new team, you don’t have any of the context of the people already there. This can be intimidating, because it feels as if people will think you’re stupid for asking questions that are obvious to them.
Try to disregard that feeling – your aim is to sort through the mess and get an understanding. If you’ve been brought in to help clean up a mess, then you need to understand it. Use your brainstormed list from above to determine your questions. Sometimes it’s fun to ask people questions you know they don’t have a good answer to, such as “Can you show me your detailed project plan?”. These questions have the advantage of putting others on the back foot, which gives you more leeway to keep asking investigative questions. However, caution should be exercised here. You may just make someone angry if they’re already tense.
Asking intelligent questions about the situation will give you the appearance of being calm and assertive. Sometimes, someone may challenge your questions. If this happens, remind yourself that you can’t know everything yet, you’re only human. If people expect you to know everything without anybody telling you, then they are misguided.
This approach should give you a feeling of calm, because you can put off responding to your fears until later. I often tell myself “After I’ve asked these questions, then I can evaluate whether I need to panic”. Most of the time, when you get to the end of your questions, panic time never arrives.
Remaining calm by knowing that somebody else’s expectations may not reflect reality
They want you to do what with your new team by this afternoon? That’s impossible! Sometimes when people are under pressure, they will place unrealistic expectations on others. The worst thing you can do is to accept blindly every piece of work someone throws at you. If it’s not able to be done in the time available, then it can’t be done. Nothing will change that.
The best way to remain calm here is to determine why you don’t believe the task can be done in the time available, and to try to have a discussion about this with your taskmaster. Back yourself. Sometimes when an impossible task is forced upon you in a work situation, a feeling of calm resignation sets in, because you know it’s pointless. Use this calm to drive the discussion in a logical and thoughtful manner.
Remaining calm by realising that this will eventually be over
Ok, you’re in a horrible, ambiguous, stressful work situation and you’re leading a new team. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that in a few hours, you will be able to go home and regroup. Remind yourself that this won’t last forever. Your boss will go home and everyone else will too, giving you time to breathe and think.
When you do get home, this is when you can disconnect and hopefully brainstorm your plan of attack for the next day. This will allow you to hit the ground running. Now relax. Today was stressful, but tomorrow is another day, and this time you’ll be better prepared.
I’m fortunate to give the impression that I’m calm in most cases. That doesn’t mean I am, and it also doesn’t mean I’m enjoying myself during these tense situations. Just remember to relax, you’re only human, and you’re a new leader.