A pensive person for the Fairisle article Stay rational

Stay rational

Keep your head when the going gets tough

 

BY JOHN WILLCOX

A pensive person for the Fairisle article Stay rational
Article Author John Willcox

John Willcox is Fairisle Consulting’s Lead Consultant

That nasty moment. The instant when you realise that something’s gone wrong. You’ve sent a confidential email to the wrong person for example, or you’ve lost track of the time and missed an important meeting.

It’s horrible isn’t it. Your chest tightens, your breathing gets rapid and shallow. You start picturing dire consequences – the lost deal, the reputational damage, even legal consequences. Maybe you’re reliving some of that right now, remembering how it feels.

All of this is perfectly natural. Your fear response is baked in and derives from early human origins when the fight or flight response was necessary to survival. A woolly mammoth charges at you, say, and you need the adrenaline to get out of the way.

In most people’s working life though (unless you work in high-risk occupations like the Emergency Services or Armed Forces) the chances of facing a really life-threatening situation is pretty low.

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Out of proportion

In other words, many of our responses to work problems are way out of proportion to the severity of the situation. This can be a problem, because acting on your fight or flight response in a situation where it’s not needed can make everything worse.

That’s not to say your feelings don’t matter. You feel what you feel and no amount of telling yourself ‘Don’t be so silly, this is nothing to worry about’ will help. Rather the opposite – it’s just as likely to add guilt to the mix, which makes you feel worse.

But there is a way out because – as well as flight or fight – people also have the ability to rationalise.

When we say ‘rationalise’ we basically mean using your ability to reason your way through problems, as a counter-balance to your feelings about the problem. Reason won’t stop you feeling how you feel (and neither should it). What it can do though is help you put things into perspective. And rationality, like a muscle, can be strengthened through exercise.

To be clear, we’re talking about workplace problems. Not severe issues you might be experiencing in your personal life such as health issues or family problems.

A person working late. Image credit Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash

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Rational muscle

At its simplest, using your rational muscle requires:

Abstracting

Separating the problem from you personally.

Factorising

Being explicit about the factors likely to affect any given situation.

Consequences

Listing the potential consequences of the scenario, and their likelihood.

Abstracting

So let’s take the example of the missed meeting. The first step is abstracting – describe the situation as simply as possible, and in the third person.

‘A participant was absent from an important meeting’’

Factorising

The next step is factorising, which is in two parts. Firstly, look at the abstract and identify the moving parts. In this example they are:

Participant was absent
Important meeting

Then, for each factor, explore its properties like this:

Participant was absent

Was the participant key to decision making?

Were they supposed to provide critical information?

Are they responsible for follow up actions?

Important meeting

Why was it important?

Were other participants only available on that day?

Can decisions be made outside of the meeting?

 Consequences

Finally, go over the combinations of factors and try to map out the possible consequences and how likely they are. It’s easiest to show in an example:

Scenario: A participant was absent from an important meeting

Factor: Participant was absent – The absent participant was responsible for follow up actions

Factor: Important meeting – The meeting was important because participants were only available on that day

Consequences (in order of severity from low to high), likelihood of consequences, and reason for likelihood.

———-

Consequence: Key decisions can’t be made.

Likelihood: Low, because the absent person wasn’t responsible for decision making.

———-

Consequence: Critical information was missing.

Likelihood: Low, because the absent person didn’t have information that wasn’t already known.

———-

Consequence: Follow up actions won’t get done.

Likelihood: Low, because a list of actions was probably taken at the meeting.

———-

Consequence: The absent person will be disciplined

Likelihood: Low to Medium, because in most organisations the occasional lapse is tolerated. Unless the absent person makes a habit of missing meetings, in which case the likelihood increases.

———-

Consequence: People will think badly of the absent person.

Likelihood: Low to Medium, as most people understand that this kind of thing can happen. And even if they don’t, they’re likely to forget about it quite quickly.

Scenario: A participant was missing from an important meeting

Factor
Participant was absent
The absent participant was responsible for follow up actions
Factor
Important meeting
The meeting was important because participants were only available on that day

Consequences (in order of severity from low to high)

Likelihood of consequences, and reason for likelihood

Key decisions can’t be made.Low, because the absent person wasn’t responsible for decision making.
Critical information was missing.Low, because the absent person didn’t have information that wasn’t already known.
Follow up actions won’t get done.Low, because a list of actions was probably taken at the meeting.
The absent person will be disciplinedLow to Medium, because in most organisations the occasional lapse is tolerated. Unless the absent person makes a habit of missing meetings, in which case the likelihood increases.
People will think badly of the absent person.Low to Medium, as most people understand that this kind of thing can happen. And even if they don’t, they’re likely to forget about it quite quickly.

 

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Balance

As you can see, even though the more severe consequences are possible, in this scenario the likelihood of them occurring seems pretty low. And even if severe consequences are likely, you are at least naming them in the way shown, which takes them out of the realm of shapeless fears. This means you can take the steps needed to resolve the issue. And those steps, whatever they are, will be the result of exercising your rational muscle, rather than your initial fight or flight response.

You don’t need to write it all out as shown, but it might be worth doing it for the first couple of times you use the technique as it helps with the abstracting part. Really though it’s about building your rational muscle, so that when you get the fight or flight response, you know you can balance your feelings with rationality.

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