Structure and emotion
The higher up the org chart you go, the more that you find that the day-to-day concerns that you are dealing with are more abstract, uncertain and just plain messy. If you’re new to the management game it can be pretty stressful. Whereas days spent as an individual contributor allowed constant focus around (mostly) well-defined pieces of work, your days spent as a manager open you up to issues and interactions that are much harder to define, contain and resolve. Another key difference in this sort of work is that as well as the structure being hard to define in what you’re working on, you’re also potentially dealing with high levels of emotion. This scenario gets amplified the closer that you get to the executive level of an organization, where the stakes are much higher and the full catastrophe* of work can be experienced.
If we imagine a development team using Scrum, then having them working at their best will involve them having clarity on their tasks and having protection from outside influence during their sprints. This allows them to focus on the tasks at hand, achieve flow and work effectively. When being promoted into a management position, you begin to realize that part of your job is to shield your team from input that is too unstructured and emotional when it would be detrimental to them operating efficiently.
This is even more necessary at the VP level or C-level in a larger organization. The kinds of unstructured and emotional input (arguments, disagreement, uncertainty) could have a severe impact on the morale and effectiveness of the entire organization. Learning how to embrace difficult situations, reshape them and communicate downwards effectively is crucial to ensure that your teams remain on course.
Imagine, if you will, a jelly, molded in a conical shape with the base much larger than the top. Although, for our American readers, I should probably call this Jell-O. This is your organization. Viewing the jelly from the side-on, visualize an image of your org chart superimposed over it, with your C-level executives at the top, and your individual contributors on their teams at the bottom. Do remember that your individual contributors are just as important as your management; it just so happens that the line management relationships form a tree shape.
If there is an unstructured emotional occurrence that blows up in one of your teams, such as a big argument over requirements or stress and panic around a deadline, then imagine your finger giving the jelly a prod at the bottom of the mold. It wobbles a bit down there but settles again quite quickly. Structurally it is fairly sound at that location. However, imagine the same thing happening at the VP or C-level. A big panic or argument occurs and it isn’t contained. Fallout ensues. Your finger gives the jelly a firm prod right at the top and the whole thing wobbles like crazy and takes a long time to settle. See where I’m going here?
The higher up the org chart, the bigger the potential organizational wobble. Not only do the people who perform the more senior roles potentially panic and explode over higher-stakes things (e.g. the health of the company, the future roadmap, how to do a big re-org that might cause upset and redundancies) but they are also role models to the rest of the organization. Those that observe the leaders in an organization losing their level-headedness will look up to them and also panic. They won’t know what issues they are panicking about, but they will inevitably catastrophize and assume the worst. Rumors spread and suddenly everyone is uneasy and distracted. It can take a long time to settle; maybe weeks or months, and all the while output suffers.
Part of your job as a manager is to prevent this wobble from occurring. You must try your best to protect the part of the organization that reports into you in times of adversity. This requires a good amount of emotional intelligence, judgment, and support. When a difficult or uncertain time requires a change in direction of your team(s), you want to be able to communicate this in a calm and reasoned way that results in those that report to you understanding the issue and being ready to work on change, rather than wanting to flip desks and set the whole place on fire.
Let’s assume you are a VP and are party to a pivot discussion (well, argument) for one of your products. You’re in a meeting with the C-level leadership and there is a heated debate.
Listening and observing
The first skill to practice is mindfully listening and observing without judgment. If a bad situation is unfolding, focus on your breathing, sit (or stand) straight and hear the other parties out. I’m aware this can be difficult if you have the board screaming at you, but do try. Take in the information. Take notes if that helps. Try to identify the parts of the situation that are fact and those that are emotion. Separate them. You’ll want to focus on the facts in further communication and try to ignore the emotion, although identifying why these facts have caused high emotion is useful to think about.
Since this situation involves one or more of your teams, then you’ll want to create some time to digest between receiving this information and communicating it to them. Even if you think that you are the coolest cucumber, being in emotional situations will change your character temporarily. If possible, try and wait until the next day before delivering any challenging news. Going home and having some distractions and time to relax allows the subconscious mind to comb through the issue. Sleep is also great at calming the emotional metronome. Often when waking up the next morning nothing is as bad as it really seems.
Now it’s time to deliver the news to your own people. You may want to reframe the message before passing it on. An example here would be one of your teams having their project canned because it isn’t making enough money for the business. Your CFO and CTO may have locked heads and had an impassioned debate (lets face it: an argument), but as the team’s VP you’ll need to try and take that message and turn it into something more positive: that the team have done a great job, that it was a challenging project for the business and sometimes these things don’t work out, that most start-ups fail. You could introduce them to the cool new thing that they’re going to be doing next. Be thankful for their hard work in this attempt to crack a new market. It just didn’t work out as well as was hoped. This time taken to digest allows the message to form and for you to communicate from a place of transparency and openness.
You’re only human after all, and emotion and change will take its toll on you. In previous articles, there was a suggestion that forming a peer group within the business, especially with those outside of your department, can create a support network that can listen if you are dealing with difficult times and further soften the impact that you yourself may have on the proverbial jelly without realizing it. Having a close peer group becomes more difficult as you get higher up the org chart. You may not have many peers and they might not even be in the same geographical location. It can be easy to feel isolated and not have many people to talk to. Solving this problem is an exercise left to the reader, but you can’t operate solely on your own.
Contain the wobble
So that’s that: you need to contain the wobble by listening and observing to challenging news mindfully, digesting thoroughly, communicating transparently and openly and then often leaning on others for your own support.
Don’t expect that those above you in the organization are experts at this, so always take it seriously and set the example that you would want to see by being a role model.
Then go do something fun.
* Note that the word catastrophe doesn’t necessarily have negative connotations. It’s a term that I’ve borrowed from Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which is one of the seminal books written on mindfulness for a Western audience. The “full catastrophe” of life is that it is by definition messy, happy, sad, brilliant and tragic. The path to mindfulness is through letting go and embracing that it is meant to be exactly that way and just being present and consciously observing in the moment. A simple concept, yet very hard in practice.