Surprises are nice when they involve birthday presents, date nights, and visits from favorite family members. They’re not so great when they happen at work and you’re taken aback by a negative performance review, not informed of a policy change, or — in a worst-case scenario — fired from your job. Getting blindsided can sting, especially when it’s in the workplace. Still, there are ways to make sure you react with class, even when you had no warning about major changes.
Though it would be nice if we received advance notice about all significant shifts from our superiors, reality tells us that’s not how life always works. Even famous personalities like Ray Lewis and Kelly Ripa are surprised by their bosses with staffing changes made at lightning speed. So what should you do when a situation at work turns sour at the drop of a hat? Take a look at what some experts suggest.
1. Do nothing right after being blindsided
Did you just get out of a review in which you feel your boss was unfairly brutal? Did a business deal tank in the 12th hour? Did a direct report completely bomb an assignment? You’ll need to react — and in short order — but pausing for a minute to take a deep breath and collect your thoughts is vital.
“Whatever you do, do not panic,” writes Shawn Hunt, owner of Satellite Broadbank UK, on the blog Skills You Need. “People may be less inclined to agree or cooperate with you if you aren’t even in control of yourself, and panic can be contagious.”
If you’re in a conversation and you need more time to gather your thoughts, like in a surprisingly negative performance review, ask to regroup in a day or so in order to gain some perspective and approach the issues thoughtfully, with fewer fiery emotions. ”You want to show good faith and be receptive,” psychologist, career coach, and author Lois P. Frankel told The New York Times. ”And then, having approached the situation in a positive and mature way, this is also your chance to go back and highlight some of your strengths that may have been overlooked.”
2. Remain professional
Even when you’ve had a moment or two to keep yourself from flying off the handle in a frenzy, it’s important to remain professional at all times. This means keeping it together in front of your boss, but also avoiding bad-mouthing your superiors to your direct reports or really anyone, even if you believe you’ve been wronged.
“The mantra to live by is: Would you rather be right (tell them what you think) or do the right think (be professional). The second one is the hardest – but it will pay rich dividends as your career progresses,” writes career consultant Kay Stout. Keep in mind this includes avoiding nasty emails and the temptation to unload your frustration on social media. Lesser mistakes have gotten people fired. And even if you just lost your job, those unchecked comments can come back to haunt you in big ways.
“It shows they do not have a governor on their thoughts, their mouth or their fingers,” Stout explained. “And some day it will come back to haunt them … in today’s world social media and your private life are connected — forever.”
3. Check your attitude
Keeping a positive attitude can be difficult in the face of unexpected problems, but it’s important for the sake of your co-workers and for yourself.
Most importantly, Hunt writes, unexpected problems can be a great opportunity to showcase your problem-solving and leadership skills. “It’s actually an opportunity in disguise,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity for you to show your initiative, to show how you cope under pressure and to show your leadership skills. Trying to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity will inevitably pay dividends.”
Just because you weren’t expecting a certain outcome doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad, writes Remez Sasson, founder of Success Consciousness. “Sometimes, what seems like a problem, or even a disaster, could be a blessing in disguise. A negative event can awaken ambition, motivation, and persistence, which would lead to progress and success,” Sasson explains.
4. See the big picture
If you’re doing your best to remain professional and keep a positive attitude, you’re probably already fitting this inconvenience into the larger picture. In some cases, the problem seems larger than it is. In more serious situations, you’ll be able to see what steps need to be taken to mitigate the worst of the fallout.
In most cases, this will be driven by a little bit of fear or anxiety, but channeling that in the right direction is what separates the good leaders from the bad, business consultant Steve Tobak wrote for CBS. He explains it this way:
Leaders are far better off dealing with surprises by actually feeling that familiar twinge of fear, being genuinely aware of the risks, and still possessing enough self-confidence and inner strength to calmly assess the situation, obtain good information on what’s going on as quickly as possible, come up with an action plan, tell all the key stakeholders what they need to know, then do what needs to be done.
Relying on your ingrained expertise will be vital, as will deciding on a plan and sticking to it. Your ability to manage the unexpected increases with experience, Tobak said, which means you’ll eventually be a pro at making educated, well-executed contingency plans.
5. Have a plan B
As Tobak told CBS, relying on past experiences should teach you a thing or two moving forward. If nothing else, taking the Boy Scout approach and being prepared for the next curveball is a solid step. You can pat yourself on the back for figuring out the solution this time around, but avoiding the issue altogether next time is always preferable.
“Evaluate what happened: how the unexpected problem came up in the first place, how you handled it, and how you could have managed it more effectively,” Hunt advises. This is also the time to consult with your colleagues and direct reports about how the issue arose and best practices for avoiding in the future. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” isn’t just relevant for the medical field, after all.