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Put Your Oxygen Mask On First January 25, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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This last week I was reminded of the safety briefing before every commercial airline flight, the one that includes “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend …” etc. There’s a part about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs. I’ve heard there’s a similar saying in hospital emergency rooms: when in the midst of a crisis, doctors should start by taking their own pulse.

When the company or division or organization appears to be in trouble, everyone looks to their leaders and managers to help them maintain perspective. A lot of people are still jumpy and feeling insecure after surviving the recession and the jobless recovery that’s followed, and they see any bad news as a possible sign of disaster and a reason to look for a new job elsewhere, or at least become paralyzed with worry. Leaders should be a calming influence in these situations, helping others sort out the facts from rumors and reinforcing the key messages to keep the team on-track. This is another example of the importance of knowing when it’s time to be a signal amplifier, and when it’s time to be a signal attenuator.

It also means being secure enough about your situation to be able to provide credible support to others. This isn’t a self-help blog, and I don’t have any universal suggestions here, but my point is that you can’t provide the leadership that the organization needs if you’re personally unsettled, and it can be particularly damaging if you’re visibly worried or paranoid or angry. Some people might recommend “fake it until you make it,” and I can see how that advice might seem helpful, but I’ve found that co-workers who are already on-edge can quickly detect hypocrisy. It’s important to take some time to process the news, sort through your private feelings, and figure out your own plan before you can help others.

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