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How not to lose your sh*t as a founder

When leading a team, you can encounter plenty of emotional tripwires. But how can founders de-escalate conflict and problem solve?

Credit: Sehaam Cyrene
Sehaam Cyrene

By Sehaam Cyrene

As a founder, when stuff goes great, it’s fantastic. But when stuff goes wrong, you feel every reverb of it. And not just your own mistakes — those of your direct reports and peers too. 

These emotional tripwires are useful pieces of information if we can use them to course-correct our approach or adjust our decision. The trouble is those strong emotions usually derail us and, longer term, send us towards chronic levels of stress. 

Being empathetic is good but we’re no good to our people if we get caught in negative downward spirals. So why do we lose control and how can we avoid these emotional tripwires?

We know that we problem-solve and make stronger decisions when we’re in a calmer state. 

But the reality is we get very attached to our decisions. We’re too close. So, when something goes wrong, our stress-response system wakes up and floods our body with adrenaline and cortisol. Helpful if we’re in danger, not so useful as a reaction to an unintended mistake — we’re more likely to overreact, blame people and make poor decisions.

Here are three steps you can take today that will short-circuit those nasty trip wires once and for all. 

Breathe

Start to practice the art of Buying Yourself Time to Respond. 

Slow down, take deep breaths and name the feelings. Hang with me here — this is no new age thing, it’s science. 

Physiologically, this suppresses your stress-response system and tells your runaway amygdala to take a break. Naming the emotional knots helps us to contain their impact and move past them. It’s a simple hack for redirecting your brain to analyse what’s in front of it in a useful way. And be honest — you can feel anger, shame, disappointment, foolish, lost, overwhelmed, sad, defeated, frustrated… it’s okay. 

As a leader, what you do and say carries a lot more weight than you think

What’s not okay is staying stuck, blaming, shaming, humiliating, shouting at someone, or giving them the silent treatment. This creates fear, distrust and punches out commitment faster than anything. As a leader, what you do and say carries a lot more weight than you think so your emotional reverb goes a lot further. 

Learn the lingo

You’ll also need some handy phrases and questions for Buying Yourself Time to Respond.

“Tell me what happened.” This gives the other person space to speak. All you have to do is listen. Try to recognise what’s important to them. Make it safe for them to ramble, repeat and vent because it’s the best way to diffuse the emotional charge.

“You’re frustrated, I can see that.” Acknowledge their feelings because this is soothing and calms their nervous system. But don’t throw in a hand grenade like “and so am I!”

“You put a lot of energy into that, I know.” Acknowledge their effort because your opinion matters to them and regardless of how senior that person is, they will still appreciate hearing this.

“Okay, we’ve been venting for 10 minutes now. Let’s work out what went wrong.” Because too much of anything is a bad thing.

Don’t jump to find solutions

Solutioning is a natural thing to want to do next and, mostly, it comes with good intention. But if you both have different perspectives on what happened, you won’t understand why you each have a strong attachment to your own solutions, and there you go, waking up your stress-response system again.

We need to do what I call some creative alignment. It’s where we get everything on the table, and then go back and forth a few times exchanging information and points of view.

“What’s your take on what/why that happened?” — I guarantee you that they know what happened and why. You’ve just got to make it safe for them to say it.

“Help me understand what happened there?” — Yes, you’ve got a good idea what happened, but accountability requires ownership, even of the mistakes. Let them explain.

“What is that telling us?” — Again, yes, you may have a pretty good idea but the learning is theirs just as the emotions are theirs, not yours. Let them talk through it.

“Would you like to hear my thoughts on this?” — Yes, you’re asking permission because a response like “Yes, please” is the best way to know they are open to your point of view.

Okay, now we can do some solutioning with “What options do we have now?”, “What can we try?”, and “What could work better this time?”

Invite them to speak first, build on their ideas, and make sure they keep owning the solution to encourage that follow-through and accountability.

You’d have to be a robot to get this right every time

Your choice of words matters. Use “we” as much as possible but don’t be afraid to use “you” where the responsibility is theirs. Also, watch your tone of voice, your facial expressions and your body language.

You’d have to be a robot to get this right every time but learning to regulate your emotions will help you feel more in control, calmer and become a better (more rational) leader. That’s the reverb that you want for your business.

Sehaam Cyrene is an executive coach (PCC) and founder of Better Conversations. She tweets from @sehaam .

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Sehaam Cyrene
Sehaam Cyrene

How do you keep your cool under pressure in conversations? Would love to about the ones you keep in your back-pocket!