Dear Dave: I am part of a team with many responsibilities, and there is immense pressure to meet demanding deadlines. Our manager is not what I would call encouraging and supportive. It seems like he does the bare minimum of work, and he is almost never around so we can get help.
Our biggest problem is the fact that we panic when scrambling to finish our work, and especially when something happens to derail our efforts. My teammates become afraid and nervous and make everything a crisis. How can we better respond to obstacles and stay calmer? — N
You are describing “team panic attacks” and, also, recounting that your team becomes overloaded with fear whenever something negative comes their way. I realize that it is difficult to work well under great pressure and that problems can disrupt your normal thought patterns, but it is your job to handle things and produce results — even if your boss is MIA.
I think we all want the same things when we are at work. We want an environment where strong and effective decision-making takes place and problem-solving methods are employed to take care of the tough challenges we face. So, when something difficult occurs, we assess the size and complexity of the problems and get busy trying to make the best choices that will eliminate the problems. Simply, we should create and implement well-thought-out response modes rather than cower under the table, hoping the “business boogie man” decides to just go away.
The best teams start thinking before they start to panic. If fear and anxiety rule over level-headed thinking, we could hardly expect nervous employees to think straight, reason things out, and make clear, workable plans. This fear is shown most when employees start to tell each other only how bad things are rather than calmly discuss what can be achieved. The last thing we need is to become negative and defeatist and look at each other with terrified faces that only makes things worse.
We can choose to stay on a path that spirals out of control when problems come our way, or we can do the other thing — decide to sit down, analyze what is taking place, and look at options that may become remedies for our problems. I, personally, believe that working on problems right away or having responses to common problems tucked away in our “quiver of resourcefulness,” will be advantageous and will take some of the sting out of any challenges that occur.
I understand that every problem is unique, and we may not be able to just plug in some neat and tidy solution. But, being prepared to dissect problem situations and having some problem responses in hand can provide a sense of calm and readiness when starting to deal with large and even small obstacles.
From panic to problem-solving
The fact that your manager is rarely around when you need him could mean that he either trusts you and your teammates to perform your jobs and overcome obstacles on your own, or he has no management and leadership skills whatsoever. I am inclined to believe the answer is the second possibility. Accordingly, you have no choice but to take matters into your own hands. But you should protect yourselves by communicating [documenting] with your boss — even in emails — what is happening and what you are doing. This is called CYA!
Next, I believe you should talk among yourselves about how your team normally reacts to problems and how you can come up with methods to better take care of the challenges. I firmly believe that the more preparation you can put into problem responses, the less panic you will experience. Simply, you will have employable tools and the confidence that comes from feeling that you are armed and ready to take care of business.
I would create problem-solving teams that have their own unique list of problems that are most likely to pop up. These ad hoc teams can get busy assessing how and if problems may occur and then develop actionable responses that could diffuse the problems. Your teams can share their ideas in short meetings — approved by your boss — or even in clear and concise reports via email or posted documents. The goal is to come up with plans that your teammates can understand and employ — not endless charts and graphs that are impossible to grasp and put to work.
Finally, see if you can find what other teams in your company may be doing to produce problem remedies. There may be good models already in action that you can learn and use. I believe a major problem in organizations is the fact that teams and departments do not always communicate with each other enough. Make it a priority to seek out smart people doing smart things — and don’t panic.