How to be Flexible – Handling the Day You Didn’t Expect to Have

A client, Nick, called me to discuss his bad day at work. By “bad day” he meant that he didn’t have the day he intended to have. As you’ll see, it was quite something.

Nick’s a Director at a large firm – he’s been there less than a year. Monday is Nick’s short day in the office – he’d blocked out his time as usual, had specific goals for the day as usual, and (being a Type A hard charger) was prepared to pursue that plan. Nick’s daily planning is some of the best I’ve ever seen – I try to model mine on his.

On the drive in to work, Nick called and told his assistant, Alex, to prepare some materials for a tricky job Nick would be doing that morning. By the time he got to work, however, events unfolded that would derail much of Nick’s day.

A well-meaning Concerned Colleague observed Nick’s assistant Alex apparently preparing to undertake the aforementioned tricky, indeed dangerous, job. This colleague checked the firm’s database of skills and certifications and confirmed that the assistant wasn’t cleared to perform this tricky job. So the Concerned Colleague:

  • didn’t ask the assistant what was going on;
  • didn’t ask Nick what the assistant was doing;
  • instead, emailed several extraneous people to try to enlist their help in preventing the assistant from performing the tricky job.

Yes, that was the pebble that would start the avalanche that would sweep away Nick’s plan for his day and consume three hours of his life. It also set the stage for Nick to have multiple negative interactions with peers throughout the organization.

By the time Nick arrived, several of these peers were emailing him to try to help in various ways – Did he know his assistant was doing X? Would he like help training his assistant to do X? Are you aware that your assistant isn’t cleared to do X? As additional people got around to checking their email during the day, this scenario was repeated 20 times.

The initial inquiry went well enough – Nick got the question from his first peer, explained that the assistant was just gathering the tools and materials, and that Nick, a certified expert, was the one who would be performing the tricky job. Nick even called the person in charge of the floor to verify that Alex was just gathering items, nothing more, and to confirm that this person knew the score.

But by mid-day things were escalating out of control. More inquiries from peers, each convinced they were the only thing stopping a dangerous event from unfolding. Each time, Nick had to painstakingly explain what was really going on. (Meanwhile, Concerned Colleague had gone home for the day, and Nick had no idea who all had gotten the emails.)

Nick’s answers got more terse, and more irritated, as the day went on. No, assistant Alex is not going to do the tricky job – I already did, Nick explained again and again. No, I don’t need you to enroll Alex in training on how to do that job. Yes, I have it all under control.

Nick’s damage control was not enough – even as he tried to salvage the remains of his original plan for the day, his peers were continuing to run with the ball. Some of them called a meeting that dragged on for an hour as Nick attempted to persuade everyone that there just wasn’t an issue here.

And with each new phone call, Nick knew he was letting his irritation show, and that this was the negative first impression he was making on peers in far flung parts of the firm.

That was the back story. Once he’d unburdened himself, Nick wanted to know what he could have done differently.

Well, several things.

Go with Plan B
First, when circumstances take on a life of their own, you may need to jettison your plan for the day. By trying to salvage his plan, Nick didn’t take time to have potentially positive interactions with his peers, many of whom he was meeting for the first time.

An alternative would have been to take a little more time on the calls, using each one as an opportunity to create a new relationship, to educate, and to learn. Perhaps:

“Hey, I’m so glad you took the initiative to call. This has already been resolved, but I want you to know how it unfolded – do you have a minute? Concerned Colleague seems to have jumped to a conclusion here – my assistant Alex was never intending to perform the tricky job, he was setting things up for me to do it. I finished it this morning.

“But the real lesson is, we need people to follow our firm’s values – they clearly say, if you have an issue with something a person is doing, ask them or go to their boss. If Concerned Colleague had done that, I wouldn’t have spent three hours today dealing with you and 19 other people.

“So, as things are now, my plan is to push for some training around our firm’s guidelines. Folks like Concerned Colleague clearly need to be refreshed on how to handle situations like this.

“That’s where things are at from my perspective – do you have any questions or concerns at this point?”

Manage Your Emotions
Expressing irritation is seldom good, and certainly makes a poor first impression. But that’s easier said than done – how do you un-irritate yourself?

One thing that works for me is to remind myself, out loud if needed, that other people are almost certainly acting in good faith, that they care, that what they’re doing is the thing that seems most reasonable to them given their current knowledge, background, habits, and beliefs. There’s seldom good reason to be irritated with someone who is doing their best and believes they’re doing the right thing.

I practice that while driving. When I see someone do a bone-headed thing, I stifle my rude comments and remind myself to remember times when I drove unusually fast, or slow, or was distracted – and I’ve done them all. I drove fast when my pregnant wife was having contractions; I drove distracted when I heard my mom had died. I drove slow when my car’s instrument panel had warning lights on, or when I was carrying an uncovered hot casserole on the passenger seat.

The issue of motive and interpretation is vital – because your estimate of what someone is doing and why they’re doing it comes before your emotion. And it’s much easier than trying to force yourself to accept gracefully your negative emotions.

It’s the difference between, say, being convinced that your spouse is cheating on you – but you are going to just stuff that emotion away and pretend to be okay with it – versus wondering if your spouse brought you flowers for a reason other than a guilty conscience.

Keep your interpretations of the facts flexible, and you’ll have more control over your emotions. You’ll also be able to receive new facts more easily, because you won’t be filtering them based on an emotional attachment to your prior conclusions.

No Tunnel Vision
Nick had gotten fixated on two things – salvaging his plan for the day, and establishing that the hot issue wasn’t really even an issue. It would have been better to accept that the emails were out, that the circumstances had taken on a life of their own, and that this was going to be a day for teaching and learning. But because of Nick’s extreme task orientation, he was unwilling or unable to shift gears. That’s a hard thing for many Type A hard chargers to learn. It takes practice.

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