Expect the unexpected: Five tips to help you confidently handle curve balls in the workplace

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect” – Oscar Wilde

I think Oscar was missing a trick when he said that. Based on recent conversations with coaching clients, I think to expect the unexpected also requires a certain level of confidence in your own ability to handle whatever life might throw at you.

Many of my clients find that the even best laid plans for the day, week, month or year can get pushed to the side in the face of the unexpected. The unexpected might be a crisis or emergency, or it might just be the latest shiny thing that the top boss has deemed a priority. Sound familiar?

Before setting up my own business, I spent over a decade working in a political organisation in a variety of senior roles. This taught me about the importance of planning and prioritising; and the importance of being prepared to throw any plans out of the window and pivot in the face of something new and unexpected. This isn’t something that just happened. I’m not naturally like this. I love a plan and I get quite anxious when I’m asked to deviate from it. Part of the anxiety was fuelled by a lack of confidence in my ability to take on the new and unexpected thing. And this is also something I find fuels my clients’ anxiety when faced with ambiguity and the unexpected.

Here are my five tips to help you be more confident in handling the mess and confusion of the unexpected:

1. Clarify expectations

One of the things I find when working with managers is that many of them, when they’re asked to drop what they’re doing and take on something unexpected, go full speed into action mode before clarifying fully what is needed.

Best case scenario is that they deliver way above and beyond what was expected – which can come at a price, as they could probably have handled the thing in less time had they taken it down a notch. The worst case is that they don’t do quite what was in mind, leading to criticism which can then, in turn, impact confidence – creating a vicious circle of anxiety when the next unexpected and ambiguous thing comes along.

Before you rush headlong into action, take the time to ask the person what exactly is required and by when. I’ve created a really helpful checklist for exactly this kind of discussion.

2. Don’t be a lone wolf

I speak from bitter experience of trying to handle unexpected crises or ambiguous requests by myself. When you try to do this stuff by yourself you only have your brain to rely on. And fantastic as I’m sure your brain is, there is a power in adding a few more brains to the mix. The phrase, “Two heads are better than one” reminds us about the power of problem-solving with others.

To ensure that working with others is a help and not a hindrance, be really clear about your ask. What do you specifically need from the other person?

3. Think about the first tiny step

Often when we’re presented with something unexpected or ambiguous we feel overwhelmed because we’re seeing the problem as one big thing. One tactic that lots of clients have found can work is to quickly break the problem down into component parts (working with someone else, remember). Once you’ve identified these parts, you can then brainstorm the first steps to take for each part. Using post-it notes on a wall means you can better visualise the problem in its parts. It also means you can move things around in order to identify the first step you need to take.

The first step doesn’t need to be massive or audacious. It can be as simple as picking up the phone to talk to someone, or clearing your diary of non-essential meetings so you have time to handle what needs to be done.

4. Plan ahead with buffer time

In a previous post, I talk about the power of blocking out buffer time in your diary. This can make a huge difference for busy, stressed and over-worked managers. If you’ve already started this practice, then that should set you up to better handle the unexpected when it’s thrown your way.

If blocking out buffer time in your diary is new to you, then why not try this now? At the end of the week, when you’re planning your week ahead, go through and where there is empty space in your diary simply block in an appointment. That appointment is to yourself. You can mark it private if you want. This makes it a bit less likely that someone will see that space in your diary and nab it for themselves. More importantly, it gives you some wiggle room in the event something unexpected comes along.

5. Remember to breathe

And in all of this, when you’ve been thrown a curve ball, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. A first and easy thing to do is to focus on your breathing to stop yourself going into panic and overwhelm mode. Using something like the 4-Square approach can be helpful. This is where you breathe in for the count of four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds and repeat. Do this for four cycles.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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