How I stay sane

When problems multiply, regroup and refocus

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Office Management,Workplace Communication

Years ago, as a smartass newcomer to the corporate world, my favorite joke was defining a manager as the person who sees visitors so everyone else can get the work done.

I used to think the top dog had it easy. Cushy office. Lots of aides. Great expense-account meals. I could do that.

Well, now I do that. And while the job has its perks, it’s not a walk in the park.

Drawing the line

Like any manager, I have problems. Our numbers are down. Competitors are beating us. And there’s always a draining personnel issue. If I didn’t force myself to put things in perspective, I’d collapse under the weight. At least once every few days I tell myself, “A year from now, this’ll be a blip on the screen.”

There’s really no limit to how much you can worry about your job. I see managers losing their hair and not taking care of themselves because they’re too wrapped up in stuff they can’t control. They magnify every blow, even if it’s actually a minor setback.

I’m aware of the limits of my control. If macro events such as economic cycles and court decisions affect my business, so be it. I draw the line on wasting time when I can’t do anything about train-wrecked cargo in Baltimore or a typhoon pinning down my managers in Tokyo.

What’s Plan B?

That’s not to say I sit and wait for disasters. If you react to every mishap rather than anticipate it, then you’ll panic and make dumb moves. When you’re putting out too many fires at once, you become immobilized.

When I confront a problem, I ask myself two questions: What’s the worst that can happen? and What action or actions can I take now to improve the situation? There’s comfort in lining up options and knowing you have a contingency plan if your preferred strategy doesn’t pan out.

Last week, we lost a huge account. It totally surprised me. I concluded that the worst-case scenario is that we take a 20 percent hit to our bottom line for a few months. Ugly but survivable.

In terms of action, I decided the next step is to turn some big prospects into customers. For Plan B, I thought we might scale back some new system upgrades and cut other internal expenses if we couldn’t enlist enough new business within three months.

Just thinking in these practical terms and hashing out plans felt good. I didn’t worry because I wasn’t idle.

Smaller pieces, please

Never treat problems as gigantic boulders that block your path. Instead, visualize yourself breaking big, seemingly intractable crises into little stones that you can pick up and throw away. I like to say, “This is really a three-part problem” or “I’m going to take this in steps.”

Resist the urge to cower in the face of a catastrophe. Keep your composure and chip away where you can. That’s one of the reasons I got this cushy job.

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