Boost Your Leadership Emotional Intelligence

While professional and technical competence are essential for workplace success, emotional intelligence is frequently cited as a better predictor of success.

A study by TalentSmart tested emotional intelligence, along with 33 other workplace skills, and found emotional intelligence to be the strongest predictor of performance. The results of the study demonstrate that 58% of success in all types of jobs stems not from professional or technical competencies, but from emotional intelligence.

Why is emotional intelligence so essential to workplace success?

Folks who are aware of their own emotional intelligence are better able to manage their emotions, such as stress and impulse control. This is critical in workplaces full of complex and rapid change, where decisions can’t always be made with certainty. People with emotional intelligence are better able to recognize the emotions of others and display empathy.

Whether you’re a C-Suite leader of a major enterprise, or a high-potential employee trying to cultivate high-value leadership skills, emotional intelligence and leadership capabilities go hand-in-hand.

You can focus on leveling-up your leadership capabilities with these eight helpful tips:

1. Align Yourself with Your Unique Leadership Style

The first step to becoming a successful, future-forward leader is to align yourself with your leadership style. It’s difficult to become the best version of yourself when you’re busy trying to mimic the leadership styles of a colleague or mentor. Take time to lean into what feels good, to recognize your individual strengths, and to develop your own natural professional tendencies to amplify your personal leadership style. (By the way, if you’re not sure what your leadership style is, the folks at Padraig help leaders understand their personal leadership style.)

2. Lead By Example

As a leader, you know which professional and personal traits make an ideal employee: They’re passionate, motivated, enthusiastic, and personable. However, to attract these types of people and reduce employee turnover, it’s up to the leadership team to also encompass these key traits.

When you’re working side-by-side with your peers and employees, make sure that you’re demonstrating the skills that you want to see reflected in others. This can be done simply by positively engaging daily with your team members, giving them recognition when deserved, and sharing your passion for your organization and what you can accomplish together.

3. Practice Mindful Leadership

Your mental health and that of your employees is vital to a successful organization. Leaders who can prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of all team members help cultivate an understanding and compassionate environment that drives success and increases engagement.

In a survey from Mental Health America, 35% of respondents reported that they miss three to five days of work each month due to workplace stress. When you take the time to practice mindful leadership by emphasizing the importance of mental health, you’re not only enhancing your success, but that of those you lead.

Not quite sure about this idea of mindfulness? Check out the Padraig blog Mind FULL or Mindful for ways you can be more present – and see the impact of mindfulness at work!

4. Cultivate Empathy and Compassion

Empathy is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” When leaders are able to utilize their emotional intelligence and develop empathic skills to understand their colleagues and team members, they can create meaningful professional relationships that provide a win-win for both parties.

The more a leader can relate to the decisions made by their employees, the better they can change their own actions to create high-value change.

5. Focus on Leadership as a Skill

Leadership isn’t simply one aspect of a job, it comprises a set of many skills that can be developed through effective emotional intelligence training and development.

Take the time to invest in leadership development exercises: Find books and courses dedicated to honing your leadership skills and watch your leadership capabilities increase.

6. Build Your Social Skills

When a leader is focused entirely on personal wellbeing and livelihood, they cannot connect with their team members on a level necessary to drive positive change in the workplace.

By building your emotional intelligence you will naturally increase your social skills, and with that you can better communicate with others while propelling your organization in a positive direction.

7. Self-Regulate for Positive Professional Development

Self-regulation is a powerful emotional intelligence tool for enhancing leadership capabilities. When you can redirect disruptive emotions and adapt to change easily, you can change your perspective and make level-headed decisions during stressful situations.

I recall one of my clients was faced with the difficult challenge of firing several long-term, dedicated staff due to unexpected budget cuts. To make it more difficult, he professionally disagreed with the decision, which put him in a very negative space.    

To help him redirect his emotions, I asked him, “What do you value from others in a difficult conversation”? He responded, “integrity, respect, and empathy.” Later he shared that it was in that moment that he voiced his values, where he realized he could remain true to them in the delivery of this task. He opened up emotionally, listened, and collaborated with his staff throughout the process. He has helped many of them move on to their next career and maintained many of those relationships.

8. Set Goals and Reflect on Them Regularly

Goals don’t necessarily have to be about breaking personal records or receiving a promotion. Sometimes, goals can simply focus on the outcomes of exciting changes that you want to make in how you perform as a leader. Goals allow you to find a new purpose, change your outlook, and redirect feelings of negativity.

There’s no better time than now to consider the professional goals you want to achieve this year to become a better leader. By enhancing your leadership capabilities through training, you can drive valuable change not only in your own life, but throughout your organization.

Coach’s Questions:

What steps are you going to take to increase your emotional intelligence? What’s holding you back from emotional intelligence workshops for you and your team? What are you reading to help you increase your own emotional intelligence?


Janice Gair, PCC, CPHR is the co-founder of EI Advantage, which is dedicated to helping leaders and teams explore their emotional intelligence and level-up their leadership skills.



It’s time for women leaders to bring out hidden powers

I recently had the privilege of hosting Day 1 of the 2018 Wisdom Mentoring Program, an event held by the Women’s Executive Network. Given carte blanche to develop a full leadership day, my intention was to provoke the attendees to realize how their leadership is critical in light of three massive and key cultural shifts changing our world.

The attendees were women who hold senior or executive positions in primarily male-dominated industries. Think: oil and gas, manufacturing, and international consulting firms.

These smart and outspoken leaders patiently indulged me in painting the picture of what’s underpinning the confluence of change that is happening now and expected to accelerate over the next two to five years. This will have an impact on not only our work, but also the ability of businesses to adapt and how we as a society choose to respond.

I’m talking about Industry 4.0, the intergenerational workplace, and #TimesUp.

Three key cultural shifts

If you don’t know much about these three key cultural shifts or perhaps haven’t even heard about them, I’ll help you out.

Industry 4.0 is the first shift, and this alone will change the world in ways we can’t even imagine. Think big data, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars. Essentially, Industry 4.0 is the bridging of physical industrial assets and digital technologies in so-called cyber-physical systems. It’s already here; humans just aren’t ready for it.

We’ve been talking about the second key shift, the intergenerational workplace, for over ten years.  Now we have members of Generation Z filling positions. Millennials expect flexibility, diversity, and ethical business practices. Generation Z expects the same and more: mainly, a self-actualized workplace culture. The Gen Z employee wants regular feedback, access to all levels of the company, and to feel personally valued. This means instead of power situated top/down, they expect power that flows down, up, and across.

#TimesUp is the third significant phenomenon. For centuries women have been relegated to subservient positions. It’s taken women of the Hollywood machine to break the silence about inappropriate behaviour both men and women have always known exists. #TimesUp is the recognition that women will not tolerate inequality and harassment in any industry. This will have huge impacts on the ways we communicate and who sits in the C-Suite offices.

Time to bring out hidden powers

With these three key shifts on the table, I proposed it’s time for women leaders to bring out their “hidden powers.” I’m talking about the characteristics we have in spades but don’t necessarily bring to our work. The women attendees dug in and came up with lists of values, behaviours, and ways of being they don’t show up with at work.

I was met with myriad complaints of situations such as, “my male colleagues speak over me in meetings,” “I’m called aggressive if I stand up for myself,” and, “it’s so hard being the only female at the board table.”

I don’t doubt the challenges these women face. What I’m suggesting is to change how we, as women, show up. We may work in male-defined structures, but if we consider the three key cultural shifts in front of us, we have compelling reasons to change the book on leadership.

We’re moving into a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Businesses will embrace agility, speed of change will be the norm, and innovation and failure will be paramount. Employees will need to feel they matter and that their work has meaning.

Four themes emerged through the hidden powers discussion:

  • Empathy
  • Inclusion
  • Vulnerability
  • Resilience

Now, I’m not suggesting men don’t have these same qualities – they do!

In a recent HBR article, authors Tinsley and Ely pinpoint that it’s actually organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.

In essence, we’ve created narratives over the years that reinforce gender stereotypes; the real explanation for any sex differences that exist in the workplace is context.

With three massive shifts in our midst, it’s time to let go of ancient directive management behaviours and bureaucratic structures where few hold the power. It’s critical to replace them with values and behaviours that support, not disenfranchise, people.  

Since the 1990s Daniel Goleman and others have been proselytizing Emotional Intelligence. The idea that we need leaders with self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation has taken hold, and yet, it’s not enough.

For women in leadership positions, stepping up and promoting their hidden powers will generate learning for both genders. This can influence a shift in context, thinking, and behaviour from gender bias and stereotyping to one of inclusion and equality.

As we embark on the agile corporate landscape, we’ll need an antidote to the lightning speed, innovate/fail/adapt/change processes of cross-functional teams. We’ll need teams supported by senior leaders who are not only empathic, but who are vulnerable, support failures and successes, understand and support inclusivity, and create climates of resilience.

We may be heading into a future of artificial intelligence and robots, but as the women of the Wisdom Mentoring Program discovered, it will take very human actions and qualities to support people into this new era.

The Coach’s Questions

Where do you see evidence of the Industry 4.0, the intergenerational workplace, and #TimesUp shifts? What as yet hidden powers could you bring to your work? What’s required for your company’s leadership to meet these cultural changes in the workplace?



Eve Gaudet, PCC, is an executive coach with a passion for supporting others. She is known for her caring and direct style in working with her clients. She has been with Padraig since 2014 and also has her own firm, Eve of Change.

How to have a performance conversation (today)

We’ve talked before about how to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations. You know, the times when you should talk with someone about something but you just don’t want to get into the discussion because it could get ugly.

Unfortunately, staying quiet to avoid conflict or upset can backfire. Not only can things get worse, too often we’ll snap and react poorly when things are even messier.

At work, the difficult discussions many of us avoid or sidestep are related to performance issues with team members. It’s a common issue among our coaching clients, and it’s understandable.

It’s much nicer to talk about good things than to deliver bad news. There are times we might not want to hurt feelings or add to someone’s struggles. Or we know what we have to say could ignite outrage (and who needs more drama?!).

Many leaders hope team members will read between the lines, take cues from conversations or peers, or that issues will resolve themselves. Unfortunately, these soft approaches aren’t usually effective.

Almost always, it’s better to have those conversations before things have festered, blown up, or derailed. If we want things to change quickly, we need to tackle the issues directly.

Are you cringing a little at the thought of having this type of conversation and being completely truthful with the person? I want you to consider an effective performance conversation as an opportunity to change things. It might be that there are problems that can be addressed (and resolved!), or it might end up that you’ll both agree a different role would be beneficial (within or outside of the organization). There are countless possible outcomes and resolutions, but they’re only going to be explored if you initiate the process by facing what you would rather not talk about. Contrary to popular belief, no news is not always good news!

Having an essential conversation is the starting point for next steps, which is so much better for everyone than hoping the issues go away.

Here are some steps to alleviate your dread and help you have an effective performance conversation.

Take time to reflect and consider the situation objectively

While we don’t want you to avoid the difficult performance conversations, we also don’t advise you jump in without a bit of contemplation, for a few reasons:

You want to strike the right tone. You might be annoyed and frustrated – perhaps even angry – but you can’t storm in and expect what you have to say to be received well (and heard). Similarly, if you’re waffling and walk in smiling and ask brightly, “How’s it going?” then you’re not being honest and will either be met with suspicion or have to redirect the conversation.

You need to be very focused on the performance challenge, not the person. It’s too easy to lapse into, “you should” or “you’ve got to” and that will result in the person feeling defensive (which doesn’t help resolve anything). It’s more respectful to be honest and approach the conversation as an opportunity to ask about what’s happening that is causing the problem, because you want to help this team member be successful.

You need some very concrete facts and examples to share. Vague generalizations about what’s wrong (“Sam, you’ve got to step up your game!”) will not be productive. You need specific information about the issue, such as, “this report has not been filled out completely and the deadline for X has not been met.”

Use a problem-solving approach

It’s one thing to talk about problems, it’s another thing entirely to figure out the root causes. Preparing to talk about performance and gathering your facts before jumping into the conversation gives you time to consider possible barriers.

In my experience, when someone is having a performance issue it’s either related to motivation or ability. It’s rare that anyone sets out for work in the morning with the desire to be bad at their job. As team leaders, we may have ideas about the root causes, but it’s wise to consider we may not fully realize the challenges our team members are facing, or the things they misunderstood.

If you suspect motivation is causing performance issues, here are some points to ponder:

  • Is this team member disgruntled, generally unmotivated, or burned out? How you resolve these issues will vary, but understanding why someone is not a high performer is key to resolving things. Your response to someone who is angry or resentful and passive-aggressively not performing well will be different from that to someone who is bored or unchallenged and different again for someone who is overwhelmed.
  • Is it possible this team member feels unappreciated? Some of us are very motivated to work hard when there are rewards (either emotional – praise – or financial). Feeling recognized for past effort might jumpstart some hard work.
  • Are there consequences in place for poor performance? There are people who will push boundaries if they don’t feel there are consequences for missing deadlines or submitting substandard or incomplete work. You may need to have clearly set milestones and well-defined consequences for future work with your team so there aren’t loopholes.  If you have set deadlines in the past, have you upheld them? If not, having a conversation to be clear you are now going to (and then, doing so) may help a lot.

If your gut tells you that ability is having an impact on performance, here are some things to consider:

  • Does this team member have the required resources to achieve success? You need to honestly consider all aspects, from the timeline and budget to required supplies, technology, and human resources. You can address the need for additional supports (and also the need to come to you earlier to talk about this kind of barrier!).
  • Is it possible the work assigned is beyond this team member’s skill set and ability? This might be a time for a coach approach to leadership to help a normally high-performing team member stretch to meet a challenge. Or, it might be time for some mentoring and education.
  • Are you certain the performance isn’t arising out of some sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding? For example, if the deliverables, goals, or deadlines weren’t clearly defined, the result could appear to be poor performance when in reality the team member faced confusion. (Of course, it’s also possible the team member was confused and should have sought clarification!)
  • Is there some other hurdle that has had an impact on performance? Perhaps the team member is stalled, waiting for input from other stakeholders or clients. Sometimes there are issues with collaboration with other team members that could use some intervention.

Prepare for the essential conversation

Now that you’ve thought through the situation, it’s time to prepare for the actual conversation. We have an essential conversation toolkit that you can use to approach any tough topic with courage, compassion, and skill.

As you work through the steps of our model, your goal will be to strengthen the relationship with the team member and solve the problem.

What’s important is starting this essential conversation off the right way. For this reason, we focus on the opening statement. For this process, we’re going to:

  1. Name the issue – what is wrong and how long it’s been an issue (focus on the single most important issue to resolve)
  2. Give a specific example – without getting into the emotional response to the issue, give one factual example of the issue
  3. Describe the effects of the issue – explore how bad things are, how the issue is affecting you and others (and the results arising from it), and your emotional reaction to the impact of this
  4. Clarify what is at stake – what will likely happen if nothing changes, what’s at stake for you and others, and what is your emotional reaction to possible outcomes
  5. What is my contribution to this issue – have you contributed to the problem, could you have done or said anything sooner, or have you made assumptions about anything
  6. Describe the ideal outcome – consider the impact resolving this issue will have for you, for others, and for the team member as well as what your emotional response could be
  7. Invite the team member to respond – and (this is critical!) listen to understand with empathy

It’s important to note — planning out the seven steps above might take you 30 minutes but when delivering them in the conversation with the employee, they should take only 60-90 seconds!

Once you’ve done this pre-work, our toolkit has a contract page for you to complete. Here you’ll define actions that you will take (that’s right – you and not the team member!) and commit to yourself, a date.

Things we want you to consider include:

  • The most useful step you could take to move this issue toward resolution
  • Possible roadblocks and your strategy to get past them
  • Any other steps you could commit to take

We also cover how to avoid common errors people make when trying to have an essential conversation. (Check out our complete essential conversation toolkit here!)

The Coach’s Questions:

When have you avoided or put off performance conversations? Can you think of times your approach caused a performance conversation to sour? What do you think you’ll do differently with your next performance conversation (hint: it might be to use our toolkit to walk you through the whole thing?)

Why do leaders avoid the truth?

Most organizations will say they invest in their people, and that may be true. They pay for training, they offer benefits.

But paradoxically, how often do we as leaders avoid difficult conversations with poor performers until a “last straw” moment and we fire them? (Oops, so much for the investment in professional development!)

Sure, there are times when folks are not a fit for an organization. However, if someone isn’t growing into a role, has failed to demonstrate initiative and innovation, or perhaps exhibits some challenging behaviours, why do we avoid telling them?

Many of us are hard-wired to avoid conflict. It feels uncomfortable and awkward to tell someone they’re not doing well. We fear a bad reaction or a worsening of the situation (when you dread approaching someone, remember you can turn difficult conversations into essential conversations).

I’m a fan of open-ended questions and so I used to ask coaching clients, in this situation, “how did the employee react when you raised this with them?” But all too often I got a non-committal response or an honest, “well, I didn’t actually speak to them.” My, “why not?” was usually met with, “well, it should be obvious to them that I’m not happy.” Or, “I think I’ve made it clear without actually having to have a conversation about it.”

Here are a few of the reasons why it is crucial that we stop doing this:

There should be no surprise endings

No one should ever be shocked to be fired, but we’ve likely all witnessed times that someone was blindsided (or perhaps even experienced it personally).

As leaders, we ideally use performance conversations to examine the good, the bad, and (you guessed it!) the ugly. Having those frank and open discussions with your team members can be very uncomfortable, but they’re valuable and necessary. But it’s easier to be liked and to avoid confrontation or discomfort. Our workday is stressful enough without adding these difficult conversations to the mix. Right?

The problem is that if someone is being given a message between the lines, and they’re told they are doing, “okay” or “could” improve, they may pick up on your message. Some folks, on the other hand, would hear that as “you’re doing just fine.”

If someone is walking that thin line, they need to know it unequivocally. This is not a time to gloss over things or hope they’re reading between the lines! You may even need to adapt your communication style to avoid communication breakdown (so that the employee receives and understands your message in the same way you’re giving it!).

People may not appreciate hearing the truth in the moment, but knowing there are problems allows them to attempt to improve. It can be the catalyst for change, inspiring them to seek out mentors and earnestly pursue professional growth.

The fall-out is huge

If you fire someone when you’ve finally had it with them but haven’t had the difficult conversations with them previously it can be very demoralizing for the survivors left to keep things going.

Witnessing the firing of someone who had assumed all was well can destroy morale and trust in a workplace faster, and more completely, than almost anything else.

If there were relationships among team members and the terminated employee, they will feel terrible for their colleague who has been cut from the team. Losing someone they have built ties with can rattle the group dynamic as they process this unexpected turn of events.

Most importantly, when someone is fired without expecting it, folks start to wonder if they, too, are unaware of something they’re doing wrong or not well. They wonder if there is conflict you’re avoiding with them too. Even top performers start to wonder, “could I be next?” Not surprisingly, morale plummets and reactions will run from fear and anger to worry, anxiety, and stress. And you can guess, when that fear pervades a workplace, who will be the first to leave? The top performers.

The cost of re-training

There’s no question that dealing with a poor performer can be time consuming and exhausting, but remind yourself that hiring new staff can be worse! That doesn’t mean avoid firing people, rather what I’m trying to say is, be sure you’ve done everything else possible before letting them go.

When we don’t have the full-on truthful conversations we as leaders need to have, we are buying very short-term relief for long-term pain.

Is it possible that really trying to help a team member improve a poor performance could take less energy, time, and expense than finding and training a replacement? Even if the time and expense of guiding and coaching the poor performer, coaching them, correcting them, is the same as hiring someone new, it still avoids the fall-out of an unexpected firing and reinforces with others that you are committed to helping your staff succeed.

Don’t forget, too, the learning curve for any new hire has an impact on the efficiency of the entire team. Having to process the termination of one coworker (while possibly fearing their own job security could be tenuous!) while helping someone new learn the ropes can really slow things down.

Difficult conversations can reap benefits

One of the best reasons to have difficult feedback conversations is that they can bring out details that will help you understand how to better motivate or support the team member.

And sometimes, having a frank discussion might even help you reassign an employee to a role they’re more suited to. When this happens, the employee is happier and performs well and that has a ripple effect in the organization.

I know that having those tough conversations might be excruciating at first but like most things in life, they get easier with practice. And, one of the huge side benefits of getting better at them is that they up your value as a leader. Others, including your own boss, see you managing the tough situations, confronting the challenging conversations, and achieving great things even with poor performers. Becoming a role-model of leadership certainly won’t harm your own career, will it?

At Padraig, we call these conversations, “Essential Conversations” because they are just that. We’ll explore in detail how to have an Essential Conversation here in the blog in two weeks from now.


Coach’s Questions:

Have you been that leader avoiding difficult (or essential) conversations? Can you think of training or mentoring success stories that have made a second chance worth it? Who on your team, right now, would benefit from you having an honest performance conversation with them? What could you gain by not avoiding the truth?


8 Ways to Get Motivated at Work

Some days it’s easy to be enthusiastic and excited about work, while other days it’s a struggle to stay focused, overcome writer’s block, or just find some joy as you juggle myriad demands.

There are different reasons for feeling unmotivated. Maybe you feel you aren’t challenged enough and boredom certainly snuffs out motivation. Some may be distracted or lack focus, while others are so overwhelmed with work or personal demands that it can feel impossible to find joy, let alone enthusiasm for the daily grind.

So what do you do when your get up and go has got up and left?

Here are eight ideas to help you get motivated about work:

1.Set up a to-do list and prioritize it. I know, it sounds simple! But rather than merely listing every task you need to complete, determine what is urgent versus what’s important. Too often we live in a constant state of urgency and it is easy to waste time on things that are actually not important or on urgent things that eclipse what is actually important in the grander scheme of things. Additionally, if you focus on the important things, you may even prevent them from becoming urgent. This is important because you can keep your focus on the big picture priorities that are full of purpose and meaning (and you won’t feel exhausted always dealing with urgent problems!

2. Ask for feedback. Seek the advice of your boss, coworkers, or other team members — and be specific (What am I doing well? What would you like to see change? Where would you like to see me grow?). When you know what is appreciated and where you can improve, you have some concrete information to help you determine what you should keep doing — and, more importantly, what you can do better.

3. Focus on what you control. We can only control what we do ourselves; we can’t control others. Carrying frustrations with other people is often a burden on our motivation. By keeping your focus on what you can do and what you have control over, you may feel less discouraged and able to accomplish what you need to do.

4. Reflect on your WHY. Knowing what you do and how to do it is helpful, but knowing your WHY helps you align yourself with purpose. This, in turn, can propel you to meet your goals and even inspire and motivate the people around you!

5. Build relationships with your colleagues. One of the programs we run is called The Five Behaviours of a Cohesive Team and it is tremendously successful helping leadership teams become more effective. Not coincidentally, one thing that often shows up in their action plans is to “spend more time together” — not more time in meetings or strategizing, but just getting to know each other. It almost seems too basic or simplistic, doesn’t it? But through agreeing to grab a weekly coffee together, eating lunch together regularly, or going out after work for a quick visit every couple of weeks, the results are amazing. They always report phenomenal growth in trust and understanding — and thus motivation — when they make relationship building a priority.

6. Practise mindfulness. It may sound like a buzzword or some fad, but mindfulness truly builds self-awareness about what’s going on around you and how you react to it. It takes practice, but when you switch from mind FULL to mindful you’ll quickly notice it is easier to get motivated at work so you can manage your day and achieve success.

7. Keep a journal. Some folks find it easy to get into a groove of journaling daily; see if you can, too. Picking a dedicated time to journal — like the start or the end of your day — often works best. I’ll admit that I find this one hard to do, but when I’m actively engaged with journaling, the results skew toward amazing. I find I’m focused and I’m motivated. Hell, sometimes I’m charged up!

8. Actively seek growth. When was the last time you learned a completely new skill? Perhaps it’s time to take a course or upgrade some qualifications (and maybe your company will see this as an investment and pay for the training!). It may be personal growth that you need and booking yourself vacation time or enjoying time away from the office (no cell phone or email after hours!) might be exactly what you need to rejuvenate. Or it might be time to ask your boss for work that is a little bit more challenging. After all, a new opportunity can be very interesting, and there are times a lateral career move can be good for your career. Change can be daunting, but it can also be very exciting!

Feeling unmotivated every now and again is entirely normal, but it’s also temporary. If you try some of these strategies to get motivated at work, you’ll find ways to rediscover your purpose and rekindle your motivation.

The Coach’s Questions:

When do you feel unmotivated? What dampens your enthusiasm professionally? Which strategies do you think would help you get motivated at work?


How good leaders handle criticism

You can’t please everyone is a truism that is particularly important to leaders.  

Leading others in an organization practically by definition means having to make decisions where there is no obvious easy choice. Realistically, there is no choice that will make everyone happy.  

Part of the responsibility that comes with the benefits of being “the boss” is having to make those tough calls and being able to weather the fallout. Some team members will simmer quietly, expressing their upset and discontent behind closed doors and out of your earshot. Others may be much louder, even challenging you and your discussions.

Facing criticism or discontent can be challenging. As Norman Vincent Peale (the late author of The Power of Positive Thinking) said, “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

I once worked for a boss who really liked to be liked.  

This boss was the kind of leader who really wanted to keep people happy with his decisions. It was terrible!

You see, we had a huge project with a lot riding on it and many different points of view. No matter what he did, someone criticized the decision. The more that happened, the fewer decisions he would make.

What if leaders are strategic about who they try to please?

Of course, there are some leaders who always base their decisions on who needs to be happy. They make a decision so a key client won’t criticize them, or so the union won’t, or so a board member won’t. Unfortunately, this means they’re not really making the tough decisions: the client is, or the union is, or the board member is — and often those folks don’t have the full picture that the leader has..  

By seeking to avoid criticism, they are abdicating their authority – and the responsibility – of making the right decisions on behalf of the organization.

How do good leaders make decisions?

Good leaders listen to the opinions of those other stakeholders. They consider multiple points of view, review facts and important information related to the issue, and then they implement the decision they believe will most benefit the organization.

And you see, this is the first key to handling criticism: If your focus is on making the right decision for the organization (not on making yourself look good, or making yourself popular), then it’s easier to confront the criticism head-on, and to debate the merits, without taking it personally.  

The more you try to please others, the more you’re making it personal – and the more you make it personal, the more the criticism interferes with your ability to lead. That’s a vicious circle that results in an indecisive leader who soon gets type-cast.

Once other team members recognize a leader can’t make a decision, you can bet there will be some who go around that leader.

So how do we deal with criticism and remain a rock solid leader?

First, don’t take it personally. That sounds a lot easier than it is, in practice, for many people. The key is to remind yourself, constantly, who or what you’re making the decision for. It should be the good of the organization and its business (products, services, clients, etcetera). Literally reminding yourself of this (silently repeating to yourself, “what is the right decision for the organization?” or something similar) will not only help you make your best decisions, it starts to remove the sting of criticism when you hear it.

Second, don’t react. At least, not immediately! Closely tied into the problem of taking criticism personally is leaders who get defensive quickly. Because they take what critics say personally, they react badly. If they took a minute to review the situation, evaluate the validity of the criticism, and consider how it relates to the big picture they might see it as accurate. The reality is that most criticism will have some truth to it (for example, this decision did affect that department badly…even though it was necessary for the larger organization, or it wasn’t the route that board member would have liked..even though it addressed the falling share price).

Evaluating criticism against the big picture – and how the decision did address the problem or opportunity for the good of the organization – will help you stay grounded in determining whether it was, indeed, a good decision. Note I didn’t say “the best decision,” or “the right decision.” That’s because sometimes there are multiple bad choices, and you have to pick one. Or there are times when there are a number of good choices, but for very different reasons – and you have to pick one.  Making a good decision (even if it turns out it’s not the very best decision!) is often better than missing the opportunity to make any decision at all.

Third, consider whether the criticism is an opportunity to learn. Perhaps you weren’t aware of something, or it’s entirely possible that you miscalculated or moved too quickly. None of us are perfect! Our decisions will not always be good ones – and considering the criticism helps us learn for the next situation, the next decision.  

Great leaders are great listeners – and criticism is an opportunity to listen. Remember, listening doesn’t mean you have to do anything other than genuinely listen and consider what is being said.  

I want you to remember one of the mantras we at Padraig constantly share (courtesy of author Stephen R. Covey): Most people don’t listen with the intention to understand, they listen with the intention to respond.  

Use criticism as an opportunity to listen to understand (it takes practice when you’re used to listening with the intent to reply!), and then decide whether it’s worth learning from. Sure, you’ll begin to learn that some folks are out to criticize you for all the wrong reasons, but some criticism will have merit and it might be constructive. When those around you have valid concerns and worthy feedback, hearing them and understanding them will make you stronger as a leader and will help them see themselves as helping you

The Coach’s Questions:

What criteria have you valued most when making tough decisions? When those decisions were criticized, how did you feel? How did you respond? What decisions are facing you now, and how will you manage them having read today’s blog?

How to set boundaries at work

One of the topics raised by our clients everywhere we go is work-life balance  – or perhaps more aptly, a lack of it.

It’s a perplexing dilemma. You want to prove your worth and reliability and being indispensable is certainly a good thing during economic downturns.

Many employers (perhaps unwittingly) reward “face-time” or time in the office and connected over productivity, failing to realize people who work smarter and have rich personal lives can be far more effective on the job.

The end result is feeling that you can’t ever accomplish what you need to do during a standard workday  – or quite possibly that nine to five has become seven to nine or midnight. Oh, and weekends and holidays? Those are opportunities for catching up on work, right?

Why do we need boundaries at work?

It’s a slippery slope to burnout if your boss and team members rely on you constantly and you feel you cannot ever unplug from work.

Now is the time to start setting some boundaries that let you work smarter, not endlessly. You have been hired to do a job, not give up your personal life.

If you feel like you’re doing the work of two or three people it can be gratifying, but maybe your role has ballooned so much that it is actually time for the company to hire someone to share the workload.

Consider, too, that there is something incredibly wrong with a workplace that could not function without a particular team member present. What if there is a tragedy? Will work grind to a halt and the workflow falter because one person is not available? That’s a problem –  and not being able to have evenings, weekends, and vacations free from the office is often an indicator of that problem.

Taking steps to set limits on your availability can feel uncomfortable, even scary when you’ve agreed to long hours and constant contact in your efforts to achieve career success.

Why is setting boundaries at work so difficult?

It’s hard to change what has become routine, and there are different reasons why folks feel stretched too thin.

Sometimes we start work at a dream job with a demanding employer and work very hard to impress and gain respect. Volunteering to take on more responsibility or demonstrating loyalty can quickly end up with feeling overcommitted.

Other times we’re excited to do more and help, and don’t notice right away that the pressures are building and not stopping until it’s really close to the breaking point. It can feel so rewarding to be needed and appreciated that we don’t realize that, perhaps, we’re becoming the office pushover.

To be fair, if you are always willing to do more and don’t ever say no, your employer may not even think whether the demands are too much. It’s much easier to assign work or delegate responsibility to someone who is reliable and keen than it is to find someone else.

Unfortunately, dialing back the workload can feel like admitting you can’t cope. Some of us might worry we’ll be judged harshly for any refusals. In a culture where long hours and time-in at the office is the norm, and even rewarded, it can be hard to be the team member who asks for something different.

When is it okay to set boundaries?

Realizing that there are sometimes that it’s actually wise to set boundaries may help you set limits at work.

Here are some examples of when we think it’s perfectly okay to set boundaries:

It hinders your ability to accomplish your responsibilities: Those times that you ordinarily say yes to extra duties to show you’re a team player can sometimes leave you scrambling to focus on your primary role and deliver on your required work. It’s tricky to say no, but if you really feel reluctant to take on more because it’s going to make your regular work harder, focus on the need to deliver well on your main duties. Give your boss the “why” to your no by outlining that you’ll be working on X this week and can’t take on Y unless the boss prefers that Y is completed instead of X. This way, the boss can decide either X or Y after considering the options. This is more of a “yah, but” than a “no,” and protects your work time while allowing you to be the best you can be on the chosen project.

It doesn’t align with long-term and short-term organizational priorities: When you’re working in an organization you will, undoubtedly, have your own career and organizational goals you are expected to help deliver. When someone comes to you with a request for help, consider your priorities. Remember that the organizational goals should always come first. If the request doesn’t align with those priorities, then you have your reason not to agree to do the extra work.

When you disagree with the decision: This can be tough. You may face a situation when your peer team (your first team) or your boss make a decision after you’ve had input and offered up good conflict around the idea – now the decision maker is going in a different direction and it’s important for everyone on the team to commit to the decision and hold each other accountable for delivering it. But, if you weren’t part of the decision-making process, “no” might be an option for you. Framing it as, “no, but let’s see if we can find a better way” can work well when you weren’t part of a decision-making process that directly affects you or your staff  – or for those (hopefully rare occasions) when you overrule your staff.

When you can’t deliver: If you know you won’t be able to deliver the results required in the request, it is crucial that you say no – or no, but. This is not only important for your sanity, but also because it’s not good for anyone to say yes if it’s not going to happen. Explain the no with a reason, such as “I won’t be able to deliver the results you need in that timeframe and I don’t want to leave you hanging at the last minute” or “I’m not the right person to get that accomplished, we could check with IT for someone with that expertise.”  Many of us who hate to say no will face this situation and forget that it’s usually worse when you fail to achieve the goal, or fail to achieve it on time, than just having said “no” upfront.

It conflicts with your values: This is undoubtedly one of the toughest situations. It requires consideration, but it also requires steadfastness and courage. In these days of anti-bullying and #metoo, it’s particularly important that we know our values and stand by them. Saying no in a values-based situation can be difficult and feel threatening, but it will also be the most affirming type of no you will likely ever use. If possible, talk through your approach with an ally or coach before you respond, but don’t hesitate to the point of ignoring the situation.

When you need to say no for now: Sometimes the task isn’t the issue, it’s the timing that is stressful. Don’t forget that you can say no, but make it a negotiation. For example, you can respond, “I’d be happy to put in some extra time on this, but I can’t this weekend (or this week or tonight). If it would help, I could set aside X next week and take this on and have it finished by Friday. Or, perhaps someone else could start it and I could take a look at it Monday morning before we send it out.” In this way, you’re protecting your personal time and ensuring your workload doesn’t become unmanageable, but you’re still offering to help and giving some solutions.

Saying no (without losing respect)

As you can see, it’s possible to say no without seeming obstinate and uncooperative. When there are reasons for saying no or not right now, it can be better not only for you personally but for the organization.

You do not have to agree to everything to be a good employee. In fact, you could be setting yourself up for a breakdown from stress and rushing to finish work that could be accomplished on a different (and smarter) deadline.

Saying no with grace, confidence, and reasons to reconsider the timing or the delegation of work can be better for the team. You could be giving other people opportunities to share their time and talents and it’s possible other people need to learn how to also set some boundaries by following your lead.

If you’re faced with a sudden and unexpected request and you aren’t sure what to do, remember that you don’t have to answer immediately. Buy yourself some time to think and strategize with a cheery, “Let me check my calendar quickly and I’ll get back to you.” This leaves you in control and protects your schedule (without feeling like you’re not a team player!).

Setting boundaries at work will soon feel empowering. Improved work-life balance leads to greater job satisfaction and improved well-being.

Today’s Coach’s Questions are:

How is your work-life balance currently? What is your biggest challenge to setting boundaries at work? What is something you can try this week?


Achieving work/ life balance

There are times that balancing the demands of work and personal life feel impossible (even laughable!).

When we work with individuals and companies, we often hear from folks that they’re struggling to find a way to try to balance these demands, let alone actually achieve balance!

Advances in technology have changed workplace culture. I read an article in Time magazine that said from 1986 to 1996 there were only 32 references to work-life balance in the media. Fast forward a decade and it was a very hot topic (mentioned nearly 2,000 times in 2007!). Unfortunately, here we are another decade later and it feels like we haven’t done much to address the challenge.

But just because you can be reached 24/7, does it mean you should be available at all hours? If layoffs have decimated your team, does that mean you have to give up any claim to your personal life to stay employed?

As we delve into the idea of achieving work-life balance, remember to:

Think big picture: What are your longer-term family goals and work goals? What do you want at this moment in life and what do you want at this moment in work? Sometimes our short-term goal isn’t necessarily aligned with the long-term goal. For example, this week or month our family may need more from us even if our longer-term goal involves a strong focus on career. Conversely, this month I need to really contribute a lot at work, even though I have strong goals of family time while my kids are young.

Be flexible: It’s good to have goals, ideals, and values, but sometimes we have to remember that it’s big picture balance as well. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not giving enough to your family this week. Look at the big picture balance: The kids are going to remember the time you spent with them in summer.  Will that be negated if you get home at 7:00 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m. for a little while? (Honestly, that’s a question for you. Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t).

Consider this a process: When we try to balance work and life, it may feel like we’re not giving enough to anything. It may help to think of managing towards the goals instead of balancing. Or maybe balance needs to be week to week or month to month and not necessarily day to day.

Be open to changing expectations: Remember, too, that where we are in life can determine what balance means. For example, our stage of life can make the right balance very different. The right balance when you’re single with no kids can change greatly when you marry or have children. Similarly, an unexpected illness or the death of a loved one can impact our priorities. Let your plans and goals morph when they need to.  In some of these situations, it might come back to that question of short-term vs long-term goals.

Why balance is important

The old adage that all work and no play makes Jack (or Jill!) dull has some truth to it. Living to work is not going to build meaningful relationships with friends, life partners, and family. And we all know the other adage, “no one ever lay on their deathbed and said, ‘I wish I’d worked longer hours.’”

Achieving balance is when we work to live – we’re busy, but have time for things both at work and in our personal lives. As satisfying as work can be, we need time to relax and rejuvenate. Some folks will feel their best when they volunteer in the community, play sports, spend time with loved ones, or pursue a hobby.

Finding time to nurture your personal life is good for the soul. Finding a mental and emotional balance helps us to be more present when we are at work. Failing to do this usually ends in burnout or breakdown.

Our health and wellbeing also benefit from movement. Sitting all day can damage our health. Being active and practicing yoga or exercising also helps to manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways (and yes, for those who know me well, you’ll know this is an example of me looking out for you by saying “do what I say, not what I do.”).  #bestintentions

Setting boundaries

It’s okay to define some aspects of how you use technology. There are a number of ways to set boundaries without being unresponsive. Think of it as establishing rules for when you’ll reply quickly and when you’ll be away from work.

When you are given a work cell phone, for example, you can leave your office hours on your voicemail (just remember to keep it updated!). If you work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can let them know when you’re in the office and that you’ll respond to messages left after hours within one business day. If it’s an emergency or you’re on holiday, let callers know who to contact in your absence for urgent matters. Otherwise, you’ll get back to them on X day.

Similarly, you could let your coworkers know that your home is tech-free certain times (perhaps the dinner hour or after 7 p.m. and on weekends). When people know they’re not going to reach you immediately, it’s amazing what can wait until you’re back in the office.

Do you always reach for your phone and check emails the moment you wake up? Instead, try to leave that for the first 30 minutes of your workday or the 15 minutes you’re on transit to get to work. One of the best moves I made was to stop charging my phone in the bedroom but rather to charge it by the front door.  It means I’m not taking it up to bed with me (and running the risk of being on it til the wee hours), or checking it even before I’ve brushed my teeth. Keep mornings for exercise, eating well, getting ready for your day, and seeing your loved ones off. Putting your personal life first can be extremely gratifying and leave you ready to tackle work during actual office hours.

Further, if you do check voicemail messages, texts, or emails from home, consider choosing which ones are a priority and which ones can wait. You don’t have to jump to reply to each and every point of contact – and you certainly don’t have to reply straight away. The “mark unread” feature on email helps a lot, or create a folder “stuff to do first thing in the morning.”  

If you’re on holiday, protect your time off by leaving your work cell and laptop at home (or at the office!). If you don’t have someone who can fill in for you and you have to be reachable on holiday, set certain hours to check messages and handle replies. Again, your personal time is important and your wellbeing is, too.

In many ways, as work culture has evolved into this constant contact, some of us have accepted the intrusion into our personal lives without question. Start setting some small limits and enjoy the freedom of unplugging regularly from work demands.

How to say no

Part of being able to implement some work-life balance is being able to say no gracefully.

It’s hard for some of us to say no. We might fear repercussions if we don’t take on more work, or guilty that we’re letting the team down.

It’s possible that saying yes all the time has become a habit (and it can feel so good to be needed!).

There are, however, times that you can and should say no. It’s okay to decline to serve on another committee or head to the pub with the team after work: “I’d love to but unfortunately I can’t make that fit in the schedule” is conciliatory but firm.

The thing many of us fail to realize is that personal life can be every bit as important as work. And what is urgent at work may not be important in the long run. We have to determine what deserves our focus and make some judgment calls about priority.

Tune in to our next blog in two weeks to learn more about ways you can say no without losing respect at work.

Keeping commitments to yourself

You don’t have to justify wanting to carve out uninterrupted personal time for yourself. It can feel odd not to give reasons why you need time unplugged from work, but do you really have to give details?

Focus on working efficiently, not slogging away for excessive hours. If you can meet your deadlines and work goals (for yourself and the company), then clearly quality is more important than quantity. Top performers typically face less resistance negotiating flex time or telecommuting.

Too often, employees (particularly women), can be judged harshly when childcare demands conflict with work demands. If you are able to telecommute or have a flexible schedule, you could request a day to work from home or flex your hours without announcing that your youngest is sick or your aging parent needs to go to the doctor.

Some folks share many details about where they’re going on vacation and how they spent their weekend. You are under no obligation to share all the details of your personal life with your work colleagues. Vague statements like, “We’re getting off the grid and away from it all!” are friendly, but send a pretty clear message that you won’t be reachable during your time off.

In short, you are entitled to live a personal life separate from your work life. Educate yourself regarding your company’s policies around personal days, flex-time, leaves, and telecommuting. Then, when you wish to exercise these options, build your case based on how this accommodation will help you achieve your work goals rather than the personal commitments demanding your time.

Changing the paradigm can be very freeing. You’ll feel more in control of your time and enjoy having time to focus on your family, friends, or what matters to you in your personal life. When you model this in the workplace, you may also witness a culture shift in time as others follow your lead.

Coach’s Questions:

What matters most to you? Where would you like to draw the line between work and your personal life? What’s stopping you from feeling balance in your life? And what is your plan to address it?

How to Apologize

Asana, our project management software company, recently published a blog post called, “How to Say Sorry at Work” that really resonated for us.  

We’ve summarized some of their thoughts and added a few of our own based on our work with hundreds of leaders and leadership teams.

Healthy relationships are important for teams to function well. Human nature sometimes gets in the way, which means that sometimes relationships falter. Effective apologies allow for reconciliation and moving forward.

When you should apologize

Usually, you’ll realize when you’ve offended a colleague in some way. Perhaps you said something thoughtless, forgot to give someone credit for work they completed, or maybe you were having a bad day and lashed out.

Disagreements can get out of hand and we’re not always as calm as we’d like to be. Sometimes we intentionally or thoughtlessly make choices that injure someone else’s feelings.

Then there could also be times where you don’t realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings until they won’t speak to you or let you know they’re angry or hurt – or other colleagues tell you that you went too far or made a mistake.

Not sure whether you’ve offended someone? If you reflect on what has happened and have any feelings of remorse or twinges of guilt, an apology from you is probably warranted. It’s possible you really can’t see how you offended the person, but you know that they are upset and it’s having a negative effect on your team. In that case it’s always worth asking, first.

Essentially, if you have said or done something to cause a colleague grief, frustration, or any other kind of distress, you should apologize. Fractured relationships make work difficult for everyone and without an attempt at repairing them, they can fester and become quite toxic. We don’t have to apologize for a contrary point of view and apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re changing your view the apology is about how you, in that situation or conversation, made the person feel.

Err on the side of cultivating healthy workplace relationships and reach out to offer an apology (even if the person says not to worry, they’ll know you value their feelings!). Remember that the whole point of an apology is to attempt to make reparation for the pain you’ve caused and to build a stronger relationship.

What is an effective apology?

We’ve certainly seen many examples of quite serious breaches of trust (complete with public relations nightmares and legal consequences!) play out in the media in the last year. Consequently, we’ve also witnessed the importance of a well thought out, sincere, and meaningful apology (and what happens if it’s perceived to have been made with little effort, insincerity, and nothing of substance!).

Whether your transgressions are small or massive, an effective apology will demonstrate that you’re remorseful and acknowledge the impact it’s had on the other person.

Most importantly, a good apology is not about you. Even though you might feel less guilty after apologizing, an effective apology is for the benefit of the other person. It has to be all about them.

How to deliver your apology

The most effective apologies will be:

Sincere – You have to say it when you really mean it or risk coming off as disrespectful (and more offensive!). The apology is about putting the other person’s needs and feelings first, so you also need to ensure that you are not inadvertently trying to make yourself feel better. Nothing sounds more insincere than making yourself the main topic of the apology.

Full of empathy – You need to recognize how the other person feels. If they are feeling angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed, or betrayed, you need to demonstrate that you really understand the emotion they are experiencing.

Taking responsibility – This is when you own what you’ve done. You don’t attempt to explain it away or rationalize it or defend it; you find the courage to be responsible for your actions.

Acknowledging the impact of your actions – A good apology is going to validate how the wronged person feels. It’s important to acknowledge you understand how your actions have caused hurt. Someone who feels their feelings are being acknowledged and legitimized will be more willing to accept you are being sincere.

Offering a way to make reparation – It helps immeasurably to show that you want to make things right. Depending what happened, you can usually offer a way to fix a mistake or at least not repeat it again. Just make sure that if you make a promise, it’s something you can stick to. It’s harder to have an apology accepted for a repeat offense.

Pick your moment to apologize wisely, based on how you think it will be best received by the person you’ve hurt, without waiting too long. It becomes too easy to tell yourself the moment has passed, they’re over it, etcetera, if you wait too long.

Some people are quite private and will appreciate a quiet conversation. If you were aggressive or angry, it may be best delivered on neutral ground where the other person doesn’t feel cornered.

If you are apologizing for something that happened in front of the team, you may want to consider making a more public apology as a way to show everyone that you’re truly sorry and trying to make things right and, of course, to model the behaviour you want in your workplace.

It is uncomfortable to make an apology, but don’t put it off. The sooner you can take responsibility, the more quickly everyone can move forward.

 How to Apologize Do’s and Don’ts 

The last thing you want to do when you apologize is to make a situation worse. Here are some things to keep in mind:

DO be prepared for the offended person to still be angry. They can accept your apology, but healing from hurt or broken trust takes time. Give the other person room for those emotions.

DON’T try to wiggle out of the discomfort. It can be very awkward to face someone you’ve offended, but this is a time to talk – not text or email. Face-to-face someone can see and hear that you are sincerely remorseful.

DO be prepared to listen. The other person might have a lot more to say about how hurt or upset they feel.

DON’T argue if this happens. Part of taking accountability is hearing the full impact of your actions. The apology may start a dialogue that is uncomfortable for you but important for restoring the work relationship.

DO acknowledge that the situation is awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not easy to apologize and sometimes just saying out loud that it’s really awkward helps to alleviate the tension and get the conversation started.

DON’T make excuses. If there is a reason for something, then provide it as a rationale. For example, saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool, but you knew that we were understaffed” is an excuse and will not show you are taking accountability. However, saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool. Even if I was stressed from being understaffed, I need to work on my anger and stress management skills” gives a reason without trying to excuse you from responsibility for your actions.

DO ask for help if you aren’t quite sure how to make things right. For example, “I’m really sorry I missed the deadline. I don’t really understand how to do this and I should have asked for help in the first place. Do you know who could help us?”

DON’T say the words “if” or “but” when you apologize. Saying, “if you” or “but you” is putting the blame on the other person. Remember that the apology is about you taking responsibility and communicating regret for your actions. There is no room for blame in an effective apology.


Try to approach apologizing as a way to show that you’re professional and accountable for your behaviour in the workplace. Being able to offer an effective apology is the first step to repairing a relationship and a valuable skill for every member of a team.

Admitting your weakness or fault shows a strength of character and emotional intelligence. Taking responsibility and doing your best to make reparation shows you are a person of integrity who can put aside your ego for the good of the team.


The Coach’s Questions

What do you find most difficult about apologizing? Can you think of a time you’ve been wronged and someone has apologized effectively? What made the biggest difference? What strategies can you use the next time you need to apologize?


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.


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?