How To Recover From Stressful Workplace Problems In 5 Simple Steps

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Whether you’ve been part of an uncomfortable conflict, gotten turned down by an important customer, or had to deliver bad news to your team, upsetting things happen at work almost every day. To be effective, you need to identify what you can control in the situation rather than ruminating over your reactions to the problem. These five tips will help you keep everything in proportion and get back to whatever else you need to do.

Assess your options. Instead of responding reflexively or habitually, take a quick pause to get some distance from the situation. Think through where reality has diverged from your expectations. For example, rather than automatically defending your current approach, consider what alternatives could be more relevant or persuasive to your audience or stakeholders.

At one client company, mid-level managers had been trained to present formal proposals for a yes or no. A new senior leader now expects team members to present flexible proposals that can be adjusted and recombined on the fly. Those team members who are stuck in the old way are very unhappy with how often they’re turned down. Team members who have adjusted and expect to receive lots of feedback and multiple revisions are getting better results, and feel better about the process.

Know your true priorities. What matters to you most? Put your energy in that direction. A marketing executive I work with often risks the disapproval of her leadership to protect and develop her staff, even though she sometimes suffers personal frustration when her management doesn’t see her team members the way she does. Thanks to her strong value of development and care, her pride in her team’s development buoys her up and gives her a sense of satisfaction and purpose even when other things are going wrong.

Determine how much change you can make. Ask yourself what you would do if you had total control of the circumstances. Do you have the information, clout and ideas to improve the situation, or any aspects of it? Sharon Melnick, author of Success Under Stressadvises that you “act rather than react.” A director I coach was frustrated with what he saw as his boss’s lack of action and direction.

We talked about how he could initiate research and then offer his thoughts to his boss. When the director realized that he didn’t have to wait in frustration for her to tell him what to do, his frustration faded and he was eager to prepare for an open dialog. You gain self-efficacy by taking the actions that are available to you, and letting go of the things where you don’t have autonomy.

Actively seek the right help and resources. Asking for the right help is one of the things that’s completely in your control. You might organize a team meeting to debrief and reconstruct a failed project launch. Perhaps you could create a new business case to persuade your CFO to shift budget from one initiative to another. Maybe you just want to vent to a colleague for some quick relief. Keep in mind, though, that if you avoid help or take action that doesn’t actually create progress, you’re likely to feel more and more disempowered.

One VP I worked with was unwilling to let her boss know that she didn’t have certain technical competencies. She deflected attention from her own weaknesses by telling others what they were handling poorly or by having subordinates handle presentations. Because she wouldn’t address the situation forthrightly, when she was eventually found out, neither her boss nor her colleagues wanted to help her. Don’t hide what you need; ask for it instead.

Recover your composure so you can move ahead. Composure, equanimity and professionalism are all dependent on self-knowledge and self-management. In addition to evaluating what’s going on in the external situation, it’s important to manage your own mind and body so you can return to a ready state, instead of operating like someone who is under duress or threat.

There are multiple research-backed techniques for developing your capacity to recover from an upsetting situation, from Tara Brach’s RAIN of Self-Compassion technique and mindfulness meditation to spending time in nature. Releasing tension from the body is also effective, because when your body is calm, your mind assumes that nothing threatening is happening. I encourage my coaching clients to notice which of their body parts are triggered by the negative situation, and to work on releasing those tensions by stretching or massaging a neck that’s gotten too tight, or breathing to release a lump in the throat that is preventing them from speaking.

No matter how significant your work problem is or how deeply it distresses you, there is always something you can do to improve the immediate situation, even if it is only to pause and steady yourself. Then you can return to a more functional, professional state and figure out what the best next steps are.  These techniques will help you work through whatever is happening so you can do just that.

Onward and upward —


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