Editorial May 2013

FIRST, TAKE A DEEP BREATH

Photograph of Irving E. Rockwood

What do you do when you when you’re surprised? By bad news? That you weren’t expecting? That catches you at a bad time? And worse yet, is the product of someone else’s misunderstanding, incorrect information, or territorial issues?

Do you get angry? Flustered? Apologetic? If the news comes via messenger, do you thank him or her? Or do you just say the first thing that comes to your mind?  Do you take a deep breath and try to understand the source of the problem? Or do you launch a preemptive counterattack? Do you, in short, exhibit grace under pressure?

Alas, as I discovered many years ago, I am one of those for whom exhibiting grace under pressure doesn’t come naturally. What does come naturally, unfortunately, is saying what I think. At one level, that can be an admirable trait. And in some situations, it’s even the right thing to do. As a general strategy, however, it’s risky and ill advised, not to mention potentially damaging to relationships. When your colleague asks for input on her latest proposal, that is not the best time to say, “Sorry, but it looks like crap to me,” not even if—make that especially if—that’s what you think. Most of us, I suspect, can remember at least one incident in our life when we reacted in exactly such a manner with a friend, colleague, or sibling. If we were lucky, the relationship survived, but chances are it was never quite the same thereafter.

Then there is the anger issue. When is it OK to show anger? Whenever you feel angry? Only when you’re sure you’re in the right? Never? There are, I suspect, problems with all three possible answers. Anger is a basic human emotion. We all experience anger, and few of us can completely suppress it, but there is clearly an enormous range in the extent to which we let others in on the experience. Some people never seem to display anger. Others are notoriously angry. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

For me, the ability to exhibit grace under pressure is a learned response, not a natural one. Over the years, I’ve learned enough about myself to recognize and curb my natural instincts much of the time. As a young boy, I was, I suspect, seen as smart and clever but also hot tempered and with a tendency to be an obnoxious little know-it-all.  As an adult, I hope I am seen a bit differently. The smart and clever part is fine, although I’m not sure it still applies. The hot-tempered know-it-all part is not. It’s no way to build a functional team, and no way to relate to your customers.

So how do you get from where I started to where we all need to be? My theory is simple. When bad news arrives, first take a deep breath, and then react. Easier to say than do, I know, but if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Besides, if you’re like me, dear reader, there’ll be at least two of us in that boat.—IER