That Sinking Feeling

When do you get that sinking feeling?  Is it when you have made a great big whopping mistake? When you feel out of your depth and not sure of what you are doing?  Or when you receive negative feedback?

As healthy, functioning human beings we all experience that sinking feeling at times.  Our usual response is to try to make the sinking feeling go away, and we are remarkably resourceful at finding ineffective ways to do this.  We might justify, defend, blame, berate, distract and avoid in the hope that we can erase that sinking feeling.  As with most ineffective strategies, these are often temporarily effective, but have negative long term consequences.

It’s okay to want to avoid feeling wrong or wronged – but the real question is, how do you typically behave in response to this feeling?  Rather than defaulting to our standard reactions, this is the opportune time to check-in with our values.  If we can allow the sinking feeling to be there without automatically reacting, we can check in with our values and act In line with them. It’s a shift from being reactive to being responsive.  It’s not easy – but it’s critical in gaining respect in the workplace (in fact, in all of our relationships).

I had that sinking feeling last week when the wheels got a bit wobbly on a project I was working on.  Everyone jumped into ‘defend and blame’ mode, and my initial thoughts were the same.  I tried to mentally tick off the things I had done ‘right’ to make sure I could defend my involvement and actions.  And then I spent a few 3am awake hours beating myself up for not having a crystal ball and pre-empting the set-back.

It took a lot of patience to let that sinking feeling just be there, take a step back, and ask myself…
‘If I was being the leader I want to be right now, what would I do in this situation?’

The answer was immediately evident.  I would lead the team in shifting to solve the problem and working together to find our next steps in the project.  If we moved quickly, this was only a minor setback – the biggest loss would be if the project team stopped functioning effectively. One of my core leadership values is Solutions-Focused. Once we worked together on the solution, the next step would be to review our lessons learnt from the setback, share those lessons learnt, and put practices in place to mitigate similar risks in future.  Another one of my core leadership values is Learning.  My value of Perseverance also came up at this point – stick with it!

The sinking feeling hung around for a few days even after I started taking values-based action, but it was more of a low level hum (rather than a jet engine roar) most of the time.  Finding a solution wasn’t easy, and the blaming and defending continued amongst the project team for a little while longer.  However, we did work together to find a solution.  More importantly, we learnt from the experience and I was proud of my contribution.

So the next time you have that sinking feeling, observe with curiosity what your natural response is.
•    Do you justify your actions and plan your defensive?
•    Do you blame or berate others, or yourself?
•    Do you avoid the situation or indulge in distractions?

Could you possibly sit with the sinking feeling instead?  Ask yourself – ‘If I was being the leader (or partner/parent/friend) I want to be right now, what would I do in this situation?’

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