3 traps that crush us at work: Landmines (Part 3)

Work is full of landmines can quickly crush us. Yet we’re still surprised by the messes that surface often. Maybe we’re not paying attention. While that might be true, what’s truer is a simple fact we rarely admit. Things blow up and fall apart at work all the time.

So if the traps of loops and distractions (Parts 1 and 2) arise from our unconscious habits, landmines are the gut-wrenching consequences of these blind spots.

While we might be blind to these consequences, we’re acutely aware how they affect us.

But that awareness is a great thing.

Unlike loops and distractions, when we trip into a political mess or fall into social quicksand, we know that something has gone wrong. Even if we’re not exactly sure what, the signals are clear:

  • Work just… stops. And no matter what we do, we can’t get it moving.
  • We’re out of plays. The path forward is unclear.
  • There’s a of lot of emotion and turmoil, punctuated by circular meetings –and gossip.

We’ve misstepped, miscalculated or blown it. Or, it had nothing to do with us.

The good news is how we feel guides us to choose how we react, from pragmatic pivots to full blown meltdowns. I’ve done them all.

The messier the emotions, the greater a threat we are to ourselves.

And pragmatism is preferable to meltdowns.

So make peace with the fact that weird and unpredictable stuff just happens. We omit a key stakeholder in a new project, not through any ill-will, but because we just didn’t know. Or, from out of nowhere, someone throws a wrench in a project we’ve worked on for months. Maybe we push back when we should have played it cool. And another re-org forces us to prove ourselves all over again.

See? Landmines everywhere.

But whether we’ve tripped a landmine, stumbled into a minefield or already melted down, the most strategic and safest next steps are never what we expect. That’s a hard thing for me to say as a strategist. It’s probably a hard thing to hear if you’re, well, you. We want to fix things. To strategize and plan and align and problem-solve. But when things blow up, which they will, what matters most is where you step next.

The work itself will evolve or even survive. But if you’re clobbered in the process or you self-destruct, you won’t.

So pause and pivot.

I once led a big initiative to integrate several businesses. After months of cross-functional alignment meetings and plans, the executive leading the division killed the effort with an off-hand comment.

With more maturity and wisdom than I really had at the time, I knew my only play was to let the project blow up, and then pivot to a new one. That felt terrible. But better to take the blow than to spend another six months painting rocks –or pushing them uphill.

Pivoting means treading lightly, a lesson I learned while narrowly avoiding a collision with a wise executive as we rounded opposite corners. While still moving down the hall, she craned her head and called back to me, “I needed to do laps to cool off after my last meeting. It was heated.” And with that explanation, she disappeared around the next corner.

In our brief encounter, she reminded of something crucial.

Work will blow up, but we don’t have to.

That lesson kept me from becoming unhinged during a 12-week period where everything at work was blowing up for me. Instead, I began each day with 15 minutes of meditation, which helped me remain calm.

Wait, sorry. That was someone else.

Me? I was a mess. The minefield of politics, role ambiguity and my own inner turmoil seemed like torture. It took all my energy to not self-destruct.

After not meditating one morning, I stopped for a chocolate-covered doughnut on my way to work. Eating the frosting like a six-year old, funny enough, did help me relax. A little.

The following day, I ate another doughnut.

Over the next eight weeks – literally every workday for forty days – I began my day at work eating a chocolate doughnut. This new habit felt absurd. No one had ever seen me eat a doughnut. Not in public.

But savoring something sweet and ridiculous created a tiny space of calm. And that chocolate-covered calm allowed me to plan my next steps.

So there’s kind of a good news, bad news situation here. We’re going to trip more than a few landmines, no matter what. With some awareness, and a little luck, we might be able to side-step a few. But when things blow up work, it’s perfectly fine to imagine the safest (and sanest) path out while eating a doughnut.

Work with us to maneuver and pivot in your work.

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Photo by shari silver on Unsplash