The ability to focus on the right things during times of apprehension or overload is a leadership differentiator of the highest magnitude. One reader’s comment at HarvardBusiness.org struck me as the simplest definition of leadership under pressure I’ve ever encountered. Wally Bock writes:

Those that “don’t panic” are concentrating on what to do next.
Those who do are concentrating on what will happen.

I don’t know who Wally Bock is but he’s got me thinking.  I’m remembering the manager years ago who announced she was going to lose her house.  Our small workgroup was shocked and asked her what happened.  It turns out her largest client had just announced they were moving out of the area.  This manager had taken that one piece of news and driven it right up the ladder of inference to mean that she would soon be homeless.  A coaching conversation revealed the following jumps from data to assumptions and then catastrophic beliefs.ladder

  • Her largest client was going away.  This would result in a 50% loss of revenue to her operation.
  • 50% loss of revenue meant that she would not achieve her corporate objectives.  
  • Not achieving her objectives led her to believe she would be fired.  
  • Getting fired would be humiliating and – even worse – no one would hire a terminated manager.  
  • After missing several mortgage payments the bank would eventually arrive at the door with a foreclosure notice. 

And there she was – her thought pattern had her living on the street with no job just minutes after the client’s announcement.

This may seem like a ridiculous story but it happens daily.  The only difference is that you and I usually don’t get to witness the climb from rung to rung.  If you have ever found yourself unable to verbalize why you believe a certain action is necessary, it’s possible that you jumped up the ladder unconsciously.  If you’re intrigued by this thought process, the Society for Organizational Learning has a great page here.  Check out the link to their examples.  There are four ladders that you can read from bottom to top to follow the thought progression.  I’m sure you’ll recognize some element of your past in one of them.

So how do we help our leaders move from the inertia of a pity party to the energy of next action thinking?

  • Make it ok to verbalize what’s happening
  • Reveal assumptions
  • Seek alternate paths
  • Keep the conversation action oriented

That blog I mentioned earlier is called “What To Do When You’re Out of Control”.  Peter Bregman wrote it.  Here’s a brief snippet illustrating the power of finding a small area of control or influence:

 “Your company comes out with a new technology initiative that seems to make everyone’s lives more complicated. Yet they say it’s necessary. It’s so easy to complain about it. Or to nod along with others when they complain about it. But what if you learned enough about it to help the people who were struggling with it?”

I love this example.  Nothing reduces stress like discovering you have control – even if the control may only be exerted over a small area.  Additionally, it demonstrates the shift from victim thinking to agent behavior.  Getting to that moment of choice is the key.

Let’s go back to our manager with the catastrophic thinking.  Here are the possibilities we found.

  1. The business would not disappear overnight.  We mapped the monthly losses that would likely occur over the coming 6 months.  This helped us reframe the situation as a steep revenue decline rather than a sudden and complete loss.
  2. The client would need ongoing – and perhaps increasing – support during the transition phase.  We found 2 additional services to market to this organization.
  3. A review of the manager’s sales pipeline revealed some work needed to be done so that the lost revenue was replaced. 

All of these items are action oriented.  Instead of wallowing in the doom and gloom of what if, this manager and her team focused on what next.  They still experienced a tough year but they faced it with energy and determination.

If you think this blog may help someone, please pass it along.  And if you have any tips to add, please feel free to leave a reply below.  Comments are always welcome and appreciated.

Ladder of inference from The Fifth Discipline, Senge et al
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One thought on “Focus Under Fire

  1. I’m glad I’ve got you thinking. Thanks for the mention.

    That statement is based on several studies done by the military a few decades ago. I’ve used as the basis for training supervisors in public safety and elsewhere how to deal with high impact, low frequency events – what most people call emergencies.

    For most managers in most business situations the easiest technique is simply playing a bit of “what if?” about what kinds of things might happen and then creating some simple plans for dealing with them. It’s best if those plans are expressed in lists of things to do in order.

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