One of the biggest challenges of being a manager is developing self-awareness. The attitude you show, the approaches you use in various situations, and the way that you carry yourself are all picked up by your team. It can be hard to always keep your composure, but that’s what your team needs.
No one expects you to be an emotionless robot. We’re all human, so there will be times where it would be easy to lose your composure. The key is to know how to handle those feelings and still do the right things as a leader.
Below are a set of tactics we’ve discovered that can help you deal with challenging situations that come up in your life.
5 Ways to Keep Your Composure in Challenging Situations
Next time you have a situation that’s overwhelming, extremely frustrating, or angers you greatly, try one or two of these approaches to stay composed.
1) Write it out
Bottling up feelings can take a mental toll on you. Holding things in that frustrate you have a tendency to eventually spill out, and not always at the most opportune time. They can also block you from being able to constructively move forward on a problem. If you’re leading a team, you hurt everyone you lead if let your feelings prevent a problem from being dealt with.
That’s why the concept of “Morning Pages” is so helpful. They’re a way to get whatever is on your mind out safely, so you can constructively move forward. As described on Julia Cameron’s site:
“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning… They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.”
When you have pent up emotions about work and colleagues, it can be tremendously freeing to write out those raw feelings. Things you’d never say, but may have thought, are perfect to get down in your morning pages.
Also, by writing these first thing in the morning, you can write at home. That means you both literally and figuratively leave any negative thoughts and feelings safely away from work.
Getting in the habit of writing has many benefits. If you’re curious about the research in this area, this post provides a great overview of the benefits of many forms of writing.
2) Take a walk or a break
Especially as the pressure rises in your job, it’s easy to always be on the go. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of your mental health. Taking a break to pause, take a deep breath, and reflect can give you the space to better evaluate key decisions you’re making and recharge.
It can also get you out of situations where you may say something you’ll regret later. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to not keep your composure. By taking a walk, or a break in another form, you can give yourself a chance to let cooler heads prevail.
With just a little space and distance, you may find it easier to empathize with the other side in a conflict. You may also come up with a better solution than your initial spur-of-the-moment idea.
This is why Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, has a routine of evening walks. As he writes:
“It provides a powerful way to quickly become fully disengaged from the activities of the day and the plans, worries or excitement I have lingering.
…The walk helps me wind down for the day and sleep better when I return, and it also is a time when I find I have inspiration.”
Some problems have to be dealt with right away. For the rest, consider giving yourself the space to get some perspective. Remember, as a leader, your team will emulate the example you set. Whether you’re hot-headed and reactionary, or empathetic and measured, your team will be more likely to do the same.
3) Sleep on it before responding
When your blood is pumping fast and your stress level is high, it’s easy to write and say things you don’t mean or that will not be productive. If you’ve ever written an aggressive email or made a snap judgement you regretted later, then you know what I’m talking about.
We’re all human and we have emotions that can get the best of us. While you can’t always control that you feel that way initially, you can control your response.
When presented with a difficult situation, ask yourself if you have to deal with the issue immediately or if you can wait a day. If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask. Whether in a heated negotiation, or dealing with a difficult issue at work, it’s rare for people to refuse a request to “sleep on it.”
The tactic of sleeping on it, is one that has well served many of the world’s best leaders. In Dale Carnegie’s leadership classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, he relates a story about a legendary U.S. President who learned to follow this habit.
During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had gone through a number of American generals in an attempt to find the right leader to lead the Union army to victory. After General Meade won the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, he had the chance to corner General Lee’s Confederate troops and failed to act.
Irate, Lincoln wrote a harsh letter telling Meade how disappointed he was and that he believed they lost their best chance to end the war. However, Lincoln did not immediately send it. Instead, he paused and reflected. He then realized sending it would not be the best decision.
As Carnegie relays, it was easy for Lincoln to criticize from his post safely in Washington:
“Just a minute. Maybe I ought not to be so hasty. It is easy for me to sit here in the quiet of the White House and order Meade to attack; but if I had been up at Gettysburg, and if I had seen as much blood as Meade has seen during the last week…maybe I wouldn’t be so anxious to attack either.
…If I send this letter, it will relieve my feelings, but it will make Meade try to justify himself…It will arouse hard feelings, impair all his further usefulness as a commander, and perhaps force him to resign from the army.”
As history tells us today, Lincoln’s Union army went on to win the war, and Lincoln went down in history as one of our greatest leaders.
Before you react to a difficult situation that have you in an emotional state, consider whether you can take a night to sleep on it and then decide on the best course of action. Even a slight distance from the heat of the moment can make all the difference in resolving a tough situation effectively.
4) Take it head on
You’ve probably noticed that many of the above tactics involve getting away from a difficult situation and taking time to create a more thoughtful response. The other side of that coin is to make sure you don’t wait too long. Allowing a problem to fester and grow will only make it harder to address later.
This is why Andy Grove wrote in High Output Management:
“A common rule we should always try to heed is to detect and fix any problem at the lowest-value stage possible.”
As a manager, you have to recognize that issues you do not deal with rarely go away on their own. You can’t avoid or ignore a problem. You have to take it head on.
Coincidentally, this same challenge seems to be on the mind of people I follow on Twitter. The co-founder of Mattermark, Andy Sparks, and Sean Rose, product at Slack, both tweeted recently about this challenge and what really works:
/3 Learning to stop avoiding hard conversations has been another incredibly hard thing. Also still not very good at this.
— Andy Sparks (@SparksZilla) September 21, 2015
The cognitive burden of avoiding a tough conversation is way more corrosive than the pain of actually having it. Just do it!
— sean rose (@sean_a_rose) September 18, 2015
It can be scary and uncomfortable to have a tough conversation. Don’t dwell on that fact. Instead, consider what will happen after you resolve the situation.
A great example of this is when you have to fire someone. No one enjoys that conversation, but it’s often the best course of action for both sides.
If someone is truly not a good fit or unhappy, the best thing you can do is to have the tough conversation and let them go start searching for a better opportunity. If they really need to go, there’s a very good chance that finally firing them will be a relief for everyone else on the team.
You’ve probably heard that advice many times, and it doesn’t make it any easier. However, if you think back to situations where you’ve seen people wait too long to be fire, I bet the reasons only became stronger over time.
A friend of mine had a colleague that was on thin ice for a long time. One night he accidentally deleted customer data and didn’t tell anyone for hours. Of course he was then fired that day, but the incident required an apology to many customers that could have been avoided if they’d let the person go sooner.
Don’t put off a tough conversation longer you have to. As long as you have a reasonable plan of action and keep your composure in the discussion, you’ll be fine. You’ll even likely feel a sense of relief afterwards.
5) Ask your “Invisible Counselors”
If you are encountering a new set of challenges and aren’t sure what to do next, or you want to push yourself to think beyond your personal limitations, then this approach is for you. I learned of these “Invisible Counselors” from the classic book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
In the early 1900s, steel magnate and empire builder Andrew Carnegie paid Napoleon Hill to go and interview dozens of self-made millionaires. The goal was to create a definitive guide to understand what made those people successful. Think and Grow Rich is the result of over 20 years of research by Hill.
As Hill puts it, “the next best thing to being truly great, is to emulate the great, by feeling and action.” In other words, study those you admire and do as they do. It’s a great proxy when you can only imagine what the people you admire would tell you. Hence, the name “Invisible Counselors.”
Hill applied this concept to his own life as he made his counselors legendary men you would recognize:
“I followed the habit of reshaping my own character, by trying to imitate the nine men whose lives and life-works had been most impressive to me. These nine men were, Emerson, Paine, Edison, Darwin, Lincoln, Burbank, Napoleon, Ford, and Carnegie.“
Some of these men were not even alive when Hill was, yet he was able to use them as inspiration in his life and work:
“Every night, over a long period of years, I held an imaginary Council meeting with this group whom I called my “Invisible Counselors”… I would shut my eyes, and see, in my imagination, this group of men seated with me.
…while the members of my Cabinet may be purely fictional, and the meetings existent only in my own imagination, they have led me into glorious paths of adventure, rekindled an appreciation of true greatness, encouraged creative endeavor, and emboldened the expression of honest thought.
…On scores of occasions, when I have faced emergencies, I have been miraculously guided past these difficulties through the influence of my “Invisible Counselors.”
It’s easy to dismiss this as a little crazy, but I challenge you to try it. Having done so myself, I can tell you that even picking your Counselors is a fascinating act of self-discovery; the people you choose reflect the ideals most important to you.
When you go to your Council for help, what you’re really doing is asking your mind to think about how you would handle a situation as the greatest ideal of yourself. This simple act can help you take a step away from the situation and explore better solutions you may not have otherwise considered.
It’s important to keep your composure in front of your team. You must set an example of steady leadership or your team may lose their faith in you to lead them. It’s not always easy to do this, but these tactics can help you avoid missteps that will set a poor example or damage relationships.
What approaches have you used to lead with a calm, steady hand, even in the face of difficult situations?