Stoicism is Not Just For Emperors and Hipsters
Staying calm in a crisis is a necessary component of leadership.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, strangely finding yet another renaissance in today's era. Stoicism looks at events in life (or work) as unreliable, and uncontrollable. In other words, life happens. What we can control is our mind and our behavior. We can't control life, but we can control how we react to it.
Why does this come up in a newsletter dedicated to leadership?
When we are stressed, we often have a fight or flight response. If your office catches on fire, a panic response might work adequately well. We can use the adrenaline to sprint down the hallway to pull the fire alarm.
Most of the time, stress at work is not literally life-threatening. Instead, we have a late project, a forgotten requirement, an unexpected bug found late in our processes, or a system outage. These events are unexpected, and need to be dealt with swiftly. Yet a panic response is not useful.
Certain skills and behaviors become more important as you advance through your career. The ability to stay calm in a work crisis becomes more indispensable as you grow in experience and influence.
Why stay calm and carry on?
Apologies to the Doctors out there, but most of our mistakes are not life or death. Yelling in the office feels like the adult version of crying over spilled milk.
When people panic at work, their reaction is to try to solve a problem, and then think. This is how you make a medium-sized issue a large-sized issue.
Solving knowledge worker difficulties involves careful planning and thinking, which you can only achieve while you are calm and rational.
Additionally, we don't learn from doing things well, we learn from mistakes. We learn new processes, when our existing ones didn't work well. We learn new skills, when our existing skills fail us. Our personal growth, and the growth of those around us, depends on our ability to make mistakes and recover from them.
Calm response to failure → Mistakes are ok → Growth
Leaders encourage their team and teammates to grow by ensuring a calm response to failures.
An example of a lack of calm
Years ago, we detected that one of our services was running into load issues. It was tripping our alarms. Customers were starting to receive error messages.
My engineering team looked at it, and said that our traffic must be too high, and we needed more machines. We had some spare machines sitting around for development, and they put those machines into the fleet.
The load continued to stay high. Customers continued to receive error messages. The engineers panicked, and restarted some machines to see if that would solve the performance issues. The performance of the site got worse.
In real life, you could see a couple engineers typing, and the other members of the team standing behind them, pointing at their screens, throwing out ideas. In a normal relaxed situation, group brainstorming is great. With their panic in full flight, it meant that no one was thinking clearly.
A fire takes a simple tool to solve it. A work problem requires deep thinking and analysis. You can't panic code.
The team spent a significant amount of time taking random actions trying to resolve the issue. With each passing minute, they panicked more. I think I had been in some long, slow meeting, and the team eventually called me out of the meeting to explain what was happening.
After calming the team down, I had each member go off independently and investigate the individual mysteries. When did the performance change, and did we change anything then? Is the load on all our machines equivalent? Did our overall traffic pattern change? Are those new machines working similarly to our old machines?
Calmly investigating a mystery at their desks (rather than trying to put a fire out), engaged their brains properly. We swiftly realized that code had been released in the night, and that code had a new, complex bug in it. We hadn't realized the connection, because the bug only surfaced once traffic increased in the morning. Once we put the old code back in place, the issue immediately went away.
If there was no customer impact, I think the team would have resolved this problem more quickly. The fact that the team cared deeply about their customer experience negatively impacted their ability to handle the situation.
What can you control?
When the team panicked, they were obsessing over the wrong details. They continued to view metrics showing how many customers were being negatively impacted. They counted each customer's errors, and groaned as the number climbed into the millions.
The impact of an issue is good to know, but it is not controllable. You can control your reaction. You can control the next steps, but you can't literally control your work situation.