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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to React to a Work Crisis Without Freaking Out

upset woman

Your venue falls through 72 hours before your biggest event of the year. You offended someone important. Your department’s funding has just been cut—significantly.

How are you going to handle this news?

Crises happen in the workplace (that’s why you had to answer a question about overcoming unforeseen challenges when you applied for the job), and while you can minimize the chances of disaster striking, you can’t prevent it altogether.

Weather, money, human error, and many other factors can mean that as you sit at your desk on a standard workday, you’re suddenly handed bad news. And while you know what you shouldn’t do (cry, curse, blame a colleague), figuring out what you should do isn’t always intuitive.

Read on for a roadmap to reacting to bad news without freaking out.

1. Be Solution-Focused

You know how people often say, “stay present?” Yeah—this is one time not to follow that advice. In fact, you’ll want to avoid the temptation to sulk in the present and dwell on the fact that you hadn’t anticipated dealing with this news at that moment at all costs.

Instead, take a deep breath and play the tape forward: Can you still reach your desired result? And if not, what’s the best-case scenario? So your venue cancelled—could another venue or date fit the same bill? You hear you offended a board member—is your best bet to apologize and try to move forward or to apologize and have another colleague run point in the future?

You could run around like a chicken with your head cut off, trying to do something (anything!), but pausing and identifying the desired result will allow you to work backward, rendering you much more effective.

2. Take a Step Back

On the subject of working backward, now that you have a goal, you need a game plan. But not necessarily immediately—in fact, it might be better to ask those around you for some time to respond. It’s much better to ask “Can I circle back shortly with a proposed plan?” that to rapid-fire suggestions in the ideation stage that may vary in quality.

Need to do something in the meantime because others (particularly subordinates) have heard the bad news as well? Tell them the truth that you’re working through next steps and are open to any suggestions.

Asked for suggestions? Do a quick desired result-and-timeline calculation and throw out a bare bones idea—e.g., “Wouldn’t it be feasible to hold the event as scheduled as long as we found a similarly priced space that was public transit accessible? We could start researching it on a few fronts new—Google, personal networks—and go from there.”

3. Come Up With a Plan

Now, it’s time to strategize. Will this news upend your to-do list, or is it something you can handle along with the rest of your work for the week?

Say you need a new keynote speaker, and fast—you’re going to want as many people as possible reaching out their networks as soon as possible. Conversely, if news of spending cuts means you can only green-light one of three proposed projects, you’re going to want to take some time to re-assess. And if the person who was running a hiring process just came down with the flu, you’ll want to immediately alert candidates to the fact that a scheduling change may be imminent—and then take some time to figure out what that change would be.

Focusing your energy on questions of “When?” and “How?” also keep your mind from falling back to “Why—did this happen?”

4. Vent at Home

Once you’ve come up with a plan, communicated that to your boss or team, and set the necessary action steps into motion, it’s your time to react emotionally (and really, it’s important that you take it). Believe me, refusing to talk about the bad news because you’re already taking care of it will eventually lead to pent-up frustration and burnout.

You acted measured all day, and whether you choose to sweat it out, pour a glass of wine, or call a friend, it’s important to focus on decompressing. (Disclaimer: Set a venting cut-off time so that news that sabotaged your workday won’t go on to ruin your evening.)

In an ideal world, everything would go according to plan. However, when it doesn’t, you have an opportunity to make a strong professional impression by reacting to the bad news in a calm, proactive manner.