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Lead Thyself Before Others

It began as an average day for Jean, an HR executive in a large public relations firm. The ride in on the subway was uneventful. Summer was lazily winding down but the day was warm and agreeable. Autumn was approaching, though – back to school and back to work time.

And so the winds of change began to blow.

Jean was usually the first to arrive at her office but today she was greeted by the CEO – a very excited and anxious CEO. This combination was never good. Jean felt a small storm begin to churn in her stomach. Trying to ignore it,she prepared herself for what the CEO had to say.

“Jean!” he blasted enthusiastically, “I have some really exciting news for you.” No good morning. No how are you. No good to see you.

“We’ve just finalized our purchase of Reemer – the research agency in Vancouver. I know you’ve got a lot going on, but we need you and your team to develop and execute the integration plan ASAP. They’re working on some world-shattering research that we want to finalize this year and we don’t want to lose any momentum because of the acquisition. Clear?”

Clear? Clear as mud, thought Jean whose team was still in the middle of an HRIS system integration as well as managing a merger with another PR firm that had been ongoing for 18 months. On top of that, she was leading the team that was closing some of the satellite offices as part of the cost-effectiveness and integration measures of the new company. Jean’s small stomach storm was upgrading to a full-blown tornado watch.

Jean also knew that her boss likedto dump and run. He didn’t care to leave time for pesky things like clarifying questions or discussion, so she nodded.

“Excellent. Get her done then. And let’s ensure this doesn’t get screwed up.” And off he went – the Dump and Run CEO. As Jean watched him depart, she could have sworn she saw him kick his feet to the side as he high-fived a VP on the way through the outer office. Jean stared blankly after him while the tornado in her stomach gained strength.

So much change. So much to do and so few resources with which to do it. No real plan from the board, or the CEO. Just. “Get ‘er done!” Bleeeeeeeep!

The office came to life as the employees arrived for another day of creative industry. The buzz of people’s good mornings rang throughout the bright space. Coffee was poured. Stories were shared from last night’s kids’ soccer games or TV shows. It was the start of another normal workday to the team – until they noticed Jean. With slumped shoulders and an unusual faraway look in her eyes, she stomped from the coffee pot to her office without saying a single word to anyone. Slammed her door. And never came out.

A gust of tension and anxiety chilled the air of the normally busy but relaxed office, in the same way a dark fog slowly creeps into a horror movie scene. A large wave of people unconsciously stopped doing their work and began wandering to the lunchroom for water or coffee or tea or a quick break. Hallway discussions and Skype chats started to break out but they were no longer about the different projects they so loved to discuss. No, the discussions sounded more like this:

“I heard the CEO was here this morning and he told Jean they’re closing our division,” whispered one man with an “I’m in the know” air.

“Really? They can’t do that! How would we finish the systems integration?”

“I just got off the phone with John in Toronto East office and he said there’s word we may have been acquired by another company,” claimed another.

Yes, like the night before a big corporate announcement, all through the office, visions of lay-offs and job losses danced in their heads. And they awfulized. And they awfulized. And they awfulized.

Meanwhile, back in Jean’s office, things weren’t much better. She sat alone with her news, trying desperately to build a plan while she worried about spreading her team too thin and wondered how she was possibly going to handle another cultural merger after the last one took such a heavy toll on the company. And the timelines the board was asking for were crazy! For sure she would fail this time. And this acquisition was going to be the most public one of all. Her reputation … her team’s reputation … was at stake. What was the board thinking? Were they setting her up to fail? Did they really want her out? And she awfulized. And she awfulized. And she awfulized.

Change is so unproductive, isn’t it? Or is it?

Let’s dissect this situation a little. No one in the office really knew anything about the news from the board. Yes, they would get the information eventually, but they didn’t have it yet and thus were still unaware of any change. It was Jean’s presence (or lack thereof) that created the reduction in productivity, not the news of the change. They had not received the news yet!

It takes 30 seconds for someone with a dominant emotion to affect another person, and that’s without a single word being spoken. Our brains are wired to mirror emotions and the negative emotions that Jean developed in the office that day triggered a whole series of awfulizing, effectively compounding the adverse emotions of the team. (When given little to no information, we humans have a tendency to fill in the blanks, and we default to filling them in with negative hypothesis.)

Without knowing it, Jean had just set the change initiative for her team (and possibly the organization) back several paces before it even got off the ground! If she was worried about resistance before, at this point she almost guaranteed it – and from a greater number of people.

 

Put on your own oxygen mask, then help others.

Who can blame Jean for her reaction? She’s human. There was a lot to take in during a 30-second conversation; particularly when the amygdala (the fight or flight part of our brain) had already kicked in simply by seeing her boss. The news he brought (with little to no awareness of his impact on Jean) triggered her into a more full-blown amygdala hijack. In other words, her cognitive thinking brain had shut down – she just couldn’t think.

But Jean is also a leader. And as a leader, her shutdown was having a huge impact on her team. Her intention was to protect them; her impact, however, had the opposite effect.

How could Jean have handled this differently?

She needed to acknowledge her own reaction first – perhaps she could have headed out of the office to a local Starbucks. Essentially, she had to stop and take a moment to breathe and allow her cognitive brain to regain control over the amygdala hijack she was having. To take some time to understand and manage her own emotional reaction. Why was she impacted this way? What were her underlying needs in this situation? What should she do next?

And she needed to do this before she was in front of her team.

Once she was able to manage her own emotions, her next step would be to communicate – to tell her team what she knew – clearly, honestly and frequently. And even though she didn’t have all the answers yet, she needed to tell them what she didn’t yet know and promise to share the additional information as she received it. Finally, she needed to involve them in the plan. (But that’s a whole other story!)

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