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Lead yourself first in challenging workplace moments

Art Petty offers a 3-part system you can use to lead yourself first whenever challenging situations arise.

7 min read


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The world of work is filled with challenging moments, unexpected events and unanticipated reactions. Learning to lead yourself first is critical for survival and seizing any possibility of success in these stressful moments. One of today’s essential skills is developing a personal system for keeping control of the logical thinking part of your brain when your body’s natural reaction is to rip away this control in a flood of chemicals. Get this right, and you’re at your best when many are at their worst. Get it wrong, and you’ll set an example for those around you — just not the type of example you want. 

If you’re in any leadership role, from front-line manager to the C-suite, learning to lead yourself first in stressful moments is akin to adding a new superpower to your leadership toolkit. 

Consider the stress-inducing moments in your work life 

In my career, confrontations in board rooms top the list of fight-or-flight moments. Those moments were special.

Board meetings were where I knew before I walked into the room that somebody would view everything I had to say through the filter of “You’re wrong, and it’s up to you to prove your competence.” I didn’t sleep for days leading up to these events and recall a few times wishing I could dodge the sessions. You know you’ve reached an unhealthy state of mind when the idea of a short-term illness is more appealing than attending a meeting or navigating a difficult conversation.

The idea of the courtroom-like cross-examination of my sales forecasts, product roadmaps and marketing strategies was the stuff of sleepless nights and pre-event gastric distress. More than a few board members I encountered were in those settings to prove how smart they were and how smart I wasn’t. Cue the fight-or-flight response.

Thankfully, I gained coaching from various sources and resources on managing myself in stressful moments. Board meetings ultimately proved to be some of the most critical events in my professional life. These meetings were where I gained support for investment in new strategies while tapping into the wisdom of an accomplished group of individuals.

Armed with confidence and approaches for those moments, I focused on parlaying my abilities to challenging conversations with colleagues, bosses and team members. This personal work transformed my career by allowing me to lead through the challenging issues and sudden surprises that inevitably jumped out at me on my journey. 

What are your stress-inducing moments? 

My clients report their versions of stressful moments. Perhaps you see yourself in some of these challenging moments:

  • The monthly staff meeting where the unspoken goal is to show how great you and your team are despite the fools and obstacles in your way.
  • A long-ignored performance discussion with an intimidating employee.
  • Confronting a coworker who seems to revel in putting you down in public settings.
  • Engaging a boss who is married to how things have always been done with new ideas you believe are essential for your team’s or firm’s success.
  • Working on the firing line fielding questions from customers who are upset or angry from “Hello, this is… .”
  • Summoning the courage to let the bureaucrat from corporate know that their top ten things for you to do are far from the top of your priority list.

Add in your favorite flavor of stress-inducing moments or events.

Our real challenge is learning to cope and succeed in these difficult moments. My journey drew on multiple sources — a great coach, a lot of reading, practice and ultimately, the decision that I would strive to turn stressful situations into moments where I created value for myself, my colleagues, and my organization.

Learning to lead yourself in difficult workplace moments 

While we all process stress in the workplace differently, these techniques and approaches proved decisive and effective for me and continue to pay dividends for many others.

1. Frame and reframe your view of these tough moments 

It helps to reframe your thinking about those stress-inducing moments as opportunities to create value for them and you. Yeah, it’s an easy pop psychology-sounding trick, but it’s OK to trick your brain here until you rewire your thoughts.

Consider framing your day with an entry in your professional journal: “Here’s how I want to create value in every encounter today… .”

Every day, I remind myself of this saying attributed to multiple sources, “Be kind for everyone you meet is waging a great battle.” Then, I jot down my commitment to showing respect to everyone I encounter by listening fiercely. And finally, I remind myself that to create value, I have to be at my best when others are at their worst. 

Try my prompts or create your own to frame your day and reframe your thoughts about the difficult moments you might encounter.

2. Create a personal circuit breaker process

In his book “Just Listen,” Dr. Mark Goulston offers some of the most outstanding guidance I’ve encountered for helping us manage ourselves in sudden, challenging moments. He advises us to create a series of internal steps where we acknowledge, wonder about, strategize and only engage when presented with a stress-inducing challenge. When developed, practiced and applied, this process takes seconds, not minutes, to run through and is invaluable in staving off that fight-or-flight response our brain is seeking. 

My personal circuit breaker process incorporates these internal statements:

It’s one of those situations. I wonder why they’re so upset here. 

I need to relax my neck muscles and remember to breathe.

I wonder what I can do to create value for this person now. 

I think I need to learn more about what they are after. 

I’ll engage with a question.

While simple in concept, it’s challenging to remember to do this in the heat of the moment. I want to respond in kind, but it’s rarely the right thing to do. Develop and practice your circuit breaker process until it becomes second nature in the face of a sudden stressful moment.

3. Hijack the mirroring to project the positive 

We all know that mirroring takes place in our encounters. If someone approaches us with anger or aggression, we tend to respond in kind with our vocal tone and body language. The challenge for each of us is to harness the power of mirroring by adopting the posture, gestures, facial expression and vocal style that stimulates positive mirroring from the other party.

In my board setting described above, one of my secrets to success was to respond to tough questions or statements that I might have historically interpreted as sleights with positive mirroring.

Instead of letting them control my tone, facial expression and body posture, I reminded myself to go positive. I relaxed my stance despite my instinct to tighten up, close off and project fighting or defensive mode. I focused on listening hard, displaying curiosity with my questions and acknowledging the merits of their question. I reminded myself that I would amplify the negative if I looked or sounded nervous or defensive.

My overall approach often helped relax the situation and open productive dialog. And I developed a reputation for being calm under fire.

As a leader, you’re constantly being observed by those around you. How you handle yourself in high-stakes, high-stress moments will set the right or wrong example. These moments of maximum stress are often opportunities to solve problems, repair or build relationships and create value by finding shared interests. The opportunity is to lead yourself first and effectively transform tense moments and challenging situations into events that create value. 


Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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