“The best laid-plans of mice and men often go awry.”
This line – adapted from “To a Mouse” by Robbie Burns – summarizes a poignant reality of being a business owner: that things can, and will, go wrong.
You can’t call yourself a business leader until you’ve experienced at least one of these doozies:
- A key employee quits.
- The biggest customer changes their mind.
- The financing doesn’t stretch far enough.
All of these things will happen to everyone in business, whether they are successful or not. And we’ve all read enough business war stories to know that from the greatest setbacks can arise the greatest triumphs. But when you’re in the middle of turmoil, it’s hard to keep that perspective. How do people do it? The buzzword is “Mindset”, but finding yours amongst the organized chaos of entrepreneurship is no new-age fluff. Enter Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, who used a scientific method to define meaningful ways we can change our outlook on the world.
Seligman’s thesis states that we can change our orientation to one of positivity by consciously challenging negative self-talk. What I love about his book (and you really should read the whole thing, but particularly Chapter 14) is the ABCDE exercise he provides (originally developed by Albert Ellis) to move a perspective from one of helplessness to one of optimism.
This exercise is one we can perform on ourselves or with others – managers, employees, even our kids. Think about what is holding you back at work and, for one week, every day perform your ABCDEs. The first three describe the situation you are in.
Adversity: Describe the adverse situation you are experiencing.
My customers have started to complain. It’s taking us two-weeks to deliver what we used to be able to promise in two days. I’m spending too much time fire-fighting and as soon as one blaze goes out another flares up.
Belief: What do you think the results of this situation will be?
The customers are too demanding. Two days is unreasonable. And if I just had good people working for me, this wouldn’t be happening. Instead, I have to do everything myself, but I don’t have time to do everything myself. We’re going to start to lose business. And once word gets out, we’ll start to lose a lot of business. There is no way to turn this tide if I can’t find better people to do the job, but good people are impossible to find. Everything I have worked for all of these years is going to be for nothing.
Consequences: How does this make you feel or act?
I’m angry, I’m afraid, I’m alone, and I’m exhausted. I just want to yell at my staff to work harder. What do I pay them for if not to just do their jobs?
Now, the shift from pessimism to optimism.
Disputation: Be your own devil’s advocate and fight against the negative self-talk. Reality test the ABCs. Is there hard evidence to support the claims? Is it possible you are catastrophizing the outcomes? Are there alternative causes? Are there ways that even if the belief is true now it can be changed in the future and serve as a lesson for next time?
Actually, I do have some good people. I also have a lot of new people on my team and it will take some time for them to learn the way we do things. But they will learn – just like my veterans have. And in the meantime, there probably is more I can delegate. They’re learning every day. My customers have been patient with me so far and I understand why they’re putting so much pressure on us. The winter weather hasn’t helped with the shipping and they know this. If I just explain the situation and the plans I’ve already put in place to remedy it, they will be patient for a while longer. I’ve weathered worse storms before and I will again.
Energize: State how the disputation changed the way you feel about the circumstance. Identify the positive emotions you are feeling and clarify the actions you will take as a result in the change in mindset.
I’m not going to yell at the staff. They’re good people, trying hard. They need time. I’ll call them together and explain what we’re up against and how to deal with it – they’re probably scared too. I’ll call my best customers to assure them of our plans instead of hiding from them and hoping they won’t notice. They won’t be happy, but I’ll have earned their trust. If I lose some, at least I’ll know I’ve done all that I can.
Every leader will hit mountains that seem too high to climb. The reality, however, is that most mountains have already been summited. If someone else could do it, so can you. Use the ABCDEs to shift your perspective – because in leadership, perspective is the key to unlocking potential.