This article is an excerpt from Insight’s leadership playbook. Ensure you give the best response to surprising situations by saying “let me think a minute” and contemplating options before responding.
Ask for a moment before giving a response if something has caught you by surprise. Ensure you eliminate knee-jerk reactions or emotion-driven responses from critical discussions around business problems, personnel problems, and more.
Why We Do It
Everyone gets surprised sometimes. Part of your job as a leader is to give your team a sense of confidence and stability. Another aspect of leadership is removing your own emotions and ego during a perceived crisis. Your people need to be able to predict what you’re going to do. A leader who shoots from the hip in stressful situations will be perceived as unpredictable: this discourages people from voicing their true opinions or bad news. The last thing you want is more surprises in the future. Therefore, the best thing you can do in a stressful or alarming situation is take a step back, take a breath, and consider your options.
How We Do It
Before speaking or taking action in response to surprising or disappointing news, ask yourself the following question: “Did I expect this news [or question] expected?” If the answer to that question is “no,” ask for a moment to gather your thoughts.
Ask yourself a few questions
While forming your response to whatever question or revelation has been presented, consider the following aspects of how and why you respond.
Are you emotionally attached to this news in some way?
Does the topic at hand personally affect you? If so, ask yourself why. If you cared about a specific effort in the company and it failed, is your emotional attachment due to how you will be perceived for supporting a failed effort? If you expected people to behave a certain way and they behaved another, do you consider it a reflection of your leadership abilities?
Once you understand the emotion behind your knee-jerk response, you can determine whether your emotions are seated in logic or a fear of undesirable outcomes. No one wants to be responsible for a failure in their work, but what is the true impact of the failure? If there are lessons to be learned from the failure—or ways to quickly recover from the failure—focus on those outcomes more than the failure itself. You can’t ignore the failure or disappointment, but you can set a clear example to others of how you hope they respond to similar surprises in the future.
You can also recover any perceived loss of reputation or effectiveness by making the best of a bad situation and forming a plan to turn it around.
How do you believe your team expects you to respond?
Given your past experience with your team, what do they think they expect you to do or say right now? Would their educated guess be correct or incorrect? If you believe they will be surprised by your response, consider why your response is different from what they’d expect. If you ultimately decide that your surprising response is the best response, list a few reasons for why it’s the best response. Share these reasons with the team when voicing your reaction to the news so that their expectations and understanding of the situation better match yours. This will lessen team members’ potential shock and help them empathize with your perspective.
Are there negative repercussions to your desired response?
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What are the possible responses your team will have to your response? Will they become more motivated or demoralized? Will they understand your perspective or see your response as irrational or inconsiderate to others? What can you do to mitigate any negative repercussions with your response? Once you know the answer to these questions, you can set better expectations for how the team should move forward after hearing your response. If you believe the negative repercussions of your potential response will result in negative team behaviors, clearly state what behaviors you do not believe are acceptable in their long-term response to this surprising or disappointing news and offer alternatives or mitigating factors that can decrease the impact of your response.
If you can not think of a way to address the negative repercussions of your response, ask yourself if it’s truly the best response and consider other options.
Is your response something you would want to hear from your boss?
Finally, ask yourself what you’d like to hear if you were in the shoes of the team member delivering bad news. If you want to voice anger or frustration, is it in a productive way that will help the person? Is the person simply a messenger and not the cause of the problem? Ask yourself what you would think or feel after hearing your potential response come out of the mouth of someone you report to or look up to. Then ask yourself if that’s the way you want people to think about you.
Explain yourself to your team
Once you have settled on a response, calmly and patiently walk people through your decision-making process. Explain the reasoning behind any statements you make or actions you take. If your decision changes a workplace policy or process, describe why you feel the change is necessary. If your response is simply a statement on your assessment of the situation, also take a moment to voice your reflections on why that assessment is correct. If there are lessons to be learned from the surprising or disappointing news, explicitly call out what you believe the team should take away from this experience.
Once you respond, ask for thoughts or questions
Your team may have differing opinions or perceptions on what has happened. Ask for their thoughts or questions and silently wait a moment to see if anyone has anything to add. They may help you change your perception of what has happened, give you additional information that changes your response, or be able to suggest recommendations that build on your proposed plan of action.
By taking a moment before responding, you will give more appropriate responses. That is, your response will be more considerate, less emotionally driven, and probably better than your knee-jerk response.
A bias toward action is another mark of a good leader. However, having a bias toward action does not always mean responding immediately with the first idea that comes to mind. In most cases, the wrong response is worse than a slightly delayed response.
By taking just a moment to consider your potential response to surprising or bad news, you will give a more confident answer that is most likely better for the team. Team members will notice your brief consideration as a moment of contemplation, a demonstration that you care deeply about providing the most appropriate response. You will be perceived as a source of confidence and stability for the team, which will result in them feeling more confident in where the company is heading.
Alice has some upsetting news to deliver to her boss, Bob. She decides to raise the issue at the end of a weekly team meeting.
Bob: Does anyone have anything else to add before we adjourn?
Alice: I have some news, Bob. Our design team is 3 days behind schedule on our company website redesign. They’ve encountered some conflicting ideas from the executive team and it’s taking time to come up with design layouts that incorporate all of the ideas and requirements that have been piled on. I’ve asked them when they think they’ll be done with a new approved website design, and they’re saying it may take 2-3 more weeks.
Bob: Why will it take weeks to resolve?
Alice: Well, there’s no single person who is the authority on approving the website design, and 3 execs are pulling the team in different directions. Unfortunately, since none of them are responsible for our schedule, it’s going to look bad on our team that we’re late.
At this point, Bob is furious that the team’s website redesign is being taken over by higher-ups that have no responsibility for delivery. His first thought is to shout his displeasure for people sticking their nose in his design team’s work, and for the team accepting it without raising the issue earlier. But Bob also recognizes that shouting about the executive management in front of his direct reports is not the best way to keep a job, nor to instill confidence in company leadership with his team.
Bob: I didn’t know this was happening. Give me a minute to process this.
After a few moments of reflecting on the situation, Bob establishes a few thoughts on what’s going on.
Bob: Okay, let’s look at this. The executive team originally approved our recommendation to redesign the website. Everyone knows it’s outdated, it hasn’t had a design refresh in years, and it doesn’t represent our could brand as well as it could. Of course the executive team wants to give their input into this process, because they’re interested in us representing the brand as well as we can.
Bob: Now, I didn’t expect them to give input directly to designers. And they probably don’t realize that their suggestions are resulting in delays. So how about this. Alice, if you can tell me which executives have been talking to the design team, I’ll ask for a meeting where I can give an update on our status. I can show them the schedule and explain the delays, and describe how our team needs some clarity and direction to adequately address their feedback.
Alice: Okay, I’ll send you their names after I double-check with the design team to make sure I include all the right people.
Bob: Great, thank you. Also, I’ll be asking the execs about their goals for the site and what they need to see at a high level. I’ll also ask if any one person on the executive team would be willing to serve as the executive owner for our redesign effort. This will give them some responsibility for approving scope increases for the design effort, and give higher visibility to their impact on our design schedule. I can also drop by the design room later and let everyone know that I’ve heard about this issue and will work on getting them some clarity from the executive team so they can wrap things up.
Bob: Does anyone else have any thoughts on this? Do we feel this is a good path forward for us?
Bob chose to take a logical approach to responding to the surprise. Instead of blaming the design team or executive team for the schedule slip, he’s taking responsibility for the schedule and seeking to improve the process for accepting executive input into the website redesign.
Alice was concerned that Bob would have a negative reaction to the news. But thankfully, she now feels more comfortable sharing updates about scheduling because Bob has demonstrated that he will work to improve bad situations instead of blaming her or other team members for problems.
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