Everything Goes Wrong

How to cope when everything goes wrong

You sleep through your alarm the day of a big client meeting and then get stuck in traffic. You’re late, there’s absolutely no way to change it, and you can feel the tension as you walk in the room. As awful as all of that is, you’re desperately hoping no one notices your shirt is missing a button and your socks don’t match.

Just as you hit print on a report due shortly, the computer freezes. The clock is ticking and you can’t even get the mouse to move on the screen let alone get this document to the printer. And did you save that brilliant conclusion paragraph, or are you going to lose it all and have to start over?

Out of the blue you get a frantic text from a colleague and realize you’ve missed a crucial conference call. Somehow accepting the invite by email didn’t show up in your calendar.

You’re waiting for a direct report to deliver some numbers to you when you get a call that she’s been hit with a terrible flu. Now what?!

Can’t you just feel your shoulders tense, your stomach sicken, and pressure build in your head?

Let’s face it: Some days, one thing can be enough to knock your day sideways. Add a few horrible mistakes, a reprimand from a superior, or some spectacular typo into the mix and you can be left feeling like nothing is going your way.

Accept the reality

It happens. Sometimes the unexpected throws a wrench into the best-laid plans and other times, despite our best efforts, we miss the mark or make a mistake. What on an ordinary day might be a hassle can be intensely more challenging if we’re faced with a series of stressors.

As upsetting as it is, these are times we have to accept the bad and decide what to do about it. Whether we handle setbacks with temper and a defeatist attitude or grace and determination is up to us.

That’s not to say you’re not going to feel frustrated, angry, upset, or despairing. We’re human and we feel emotions. It’s how we cope when things go wrong that is key.

Prevailing wisdom today among psychologists is that there are two choices for how we cope:

In problem-focused coping, you look for solutions. The situation can be fixed, but you have to figure out how to make it better. So if your computer freezes and you can’t print, you can either troubleshoot on your own or call the IT guy for help. If the person you’re relying on for information has gone home sick you might find out if she can email you the file to finish up or perhaps reassign the work to another team member and adjust the deadline.

In emotion-focused coping, you realize and accept the situation is futile. The only thing you can do is try to find a way to feel better about it. For example, if you sleep in and then get stuck in traffic then you know you’re not going to make that morning meeting on time. Or if you relied on technology to put the conference call in your calendar but didn’t double-check, it’s too late now and so the question is how you react to it. Are you able to take a deep breath and make a quick apology before getting to work?

The trick is, for either coping response to work you need to be able to work through your state of alarm to determine how to best respond. When we’re upset, the alarm system is activated and we feel anxious, ill, and overwhelmed. Physically, we could be experiencing things like rapid pulse, a tightening of the chest, upset stomach, perspiration, and fighting back tears. In those situations we sometimes try to fix the situation with problem-focused coping, when all we can do is accept.  Or, we fall into emotion-focused coping when, in fact, there might be other solutions we could find.

De-activating the alarm system

To cope, you have to regulate all these emotions because you can’t respond appropriately when you’re in full-blown panic mode.

You do this by recognizing how you feel: I’m furious, shocked, panicked, or worried. Whatever those feelings are, awareness allows us to manage them so naming them is important.

Once you label a feeling, you can consider the source. So, for example: I’m freaking out right now because I can’t believe my alarm didn’t go off and now I’ve let my team down.

As you move from the emotional response to a rational assessment of the situation, you can actively practice emotional regulation. Taking a deep breath counters that “fight or flight” response by getting enough oxygen to your brain. Consciously slowing your breathing tells your brain and your body to calm down.

When you’re calm, you can think logically and choose whether problem-focused or emotion-focused coping is the right response.

Communicate

When things go wrong our instinct can be to duck and cover. But once you have a clear idea of the problem and which coping strategy you’re going to use, it’s time to communicate with anyone who might be affected by the situation.

It’s always a good idea to get out in front of the problem. So if we use the example of being late for a big meeting, as soon as you realize it’s impossible for you to make it on time, make some calls (pull over if you’re driving and you don’t have hands-free calling – no need to compound your bad day with a ticket, or worse, an accident!).

Not only is it common courtesy to let someone know you’re running late, it prepares them and might help you relax. Instead of walking into a roomful of people who are annoyed at being kept waiting, you’ve tipped them off. They might still be annoyed, but you’ve owned the situation and given them the chance to grab a cup of coffee or catch up on emails. 

Open communication demonstrates honesty and accountability. I think most of us would rather have some idea that something has gone awry for a team member than discover it later. Involving the appropriate people in the moment gives everyone an opportunity to mitigate the fallout.

Don’t blame

Try not to find someone to blame for what’s gone wrong. Even if someone else played a role in what happened, it’s not helpful to start pointing fingers. It can appear petty and it certainly won’t make people want to work with you if they fear they’ll be blamed for mistakes.

If you’re tempted to find a scapegoat, take time to reflect, get your emotions under control, and consider things rationally. Do you often blame others for your mistakes? Should you take responsibility? What lessons can you learn from this?

Keep your focus on solving the problem instead of blaming anyone (including yourself!). What matters is dealing with what went wrong. When you do this you’ll rise above the challenging situation and demonstrate resilience, which is motivating and much better for morale on your team than playing the blame game.

Keep moving forward

Look at problems as learning opportunities. Everyone makes mistakes — the goal is to avoid making the same ones again!

It’s normal to feel discouraged. Those of us who are perfectionists may struggle disproportionately with small errors, let alone significant failures. Being able to accept that you can’t control everything is hard, but necessary at times.

Try to keep your inner voice a constructive critic; examine the situation and figure out where you could do better next time or how you can salvage the situation if possible.

It’s not easy to stay positive, but your attitude in adversity could do you credit in your career in the long run. Do your best to own your mistake and work through it with as much positivity as you can muster.

Each time you navigate through a difficult situation or setback, you’re building resilience. Reach out to mentors or family and friends for the support you require to stay strong at work. The toughest business leaders don’t usually start out that way because it takes time – and support.

Everything is temporary

Though it feels awful in the midst of turmoil, remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.

One horrible day, week, or situation does not define your career. Focus on the bigger picture and using what you’ve learned from this setback to achieve your goals.

Just like Olympic athletes have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after a fall, you need to regroup and keep going.

A supportive team is ideal, of course. Always strive to encourage, support, and lift the spirits of your team members and when times are tough for you ideally you’ll encounter support and positivity as well.

It can be helpful to have a plan to help cope with the stress of a workplace challenge, like heading to the gym, taking a yoga class, talking with friends, or volunteering somewhere. Whatever helps you stay calm and makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something will help you keep any setbacks in perspective.

Tough times are inevitable, but they won’t last – especially if you have the right attitude.

This week’s Coach’s Questions are:

When have things gone really wrong for you at work? After reading this blog, how would you assess how you responded in the past to challenges? What might you do differently?

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