Hello Crisis, Goodbye Problem Solving!

By Diane Dempster, Executive Coach 

Why You Can’t (Really) Solve Problems When You Are In Crisis

CrisisOne of the most interesting revelations as a leadership company is that a large number of our new clients first come to us when they are in crisis. The last straw has been dropped and they have to “do something” before they . . . (fill in the blank here:  go under, have to fire a key player, lose their top customer, have to come up with a bail-out strategy) . . . you get the point! On the one hand, it’s great that they  are reaching out for help; on the other hand, what they don’t realize is that none of us is (really) at our best when things hit crisis level.

Some of us are always able to access our optimal problem solving potential – some would even say that they thrive in times of intense risk. Often, these are the same leaders who are good at not taking things personally. For the majority of us, however, a crisis in the office often impacts not only our company, but also hits us personally. And it’s then, when an unseen challenge arises, that basic biology makes it really hard to solve the problems effectively.  Here’s the simple explanation:

There are three general parts of our brain.

Frontal lobe – where our creativity, resilience and problem solving live. From here, we can come up with our most creative and innovative ideas in crisis.

Mid-brain – where our memories emotions and habits live. From here, we are driven by the emotional aspects of the situation, and can only do what we have done in the past, or what we have seen done in the past (whether it has worked or not).

Primal Brain – where the basic survival mechanisms reside.  This part of the brain only understands  three basic actions: fight, flight or freeze.

The more overwhelmed or stressed we get (like at times of extreme crisis), the more likely the innovative parts of our brain are to “shut down” and we get stuck in old habits that don’t serve us well.

When we're in a crisis situation, the more innovative parts of our brain shut down, making problem solving difficult.Click To TweetWe might even end up in “threat mode,” reacting in an extreme way to make sure that we either a) end the crisis now at any cost (fight), b) get out while the getting is good (flight) or c) get stuck and uncertain what to do (freeze).

So what do you do about it? Here are four tips for dealing with a crisis situation:

1. Understand the biology.

Just knowing and noticing what happens to our creativity when we are stressed or overwhelmed can be an empowering step. This can help you stay at your best as a leader when things start to get challenging.

2. Focus on the fact that you are okay.

Even when there is a challenge at work, tell yourself that you are okay. (If you are really triggered, a few deep breaths might help clear your head.) By not internalizing the situation, you can stay more creative and have access to that most innovative part of your brain.

3. Check your perspective.

The more you are able to see things from a place of curiosity or even opportunity, the easier it will be to optimize your creativity and innovation.

4. Get some support.

Bring in some objectivity and inspiration for you and your team to help you work through the issues.  Working with a leadership consultant or executive coach is a great way to keep focused on solving the problem and managing triggers, particularly in times when we are overwhelmed or stuck.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, we can help. If not, consider working with a coach BEFORE you experience a crisis. Think of it as “leadership insurance” for your organization!