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Volume 21, Issue 35;   September 1, 2021: Bad Trouble: Coping strategies

Bad Trouble: Coping strategies


When Bad Trouble develops at work people make choices about coping. If they cope constructively, they have choices about how to do that. Even those who don't cope constructively have choices. Here's a survey of the wide range of choices people make.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 13 August 1935

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 13 August 1935. When Pres. Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, the Great Depression had just begun. It is an example of what I here call Bad Trouble. Pres. Roosevelt employed many of the coping strategies listed here, perhaps most notably, leadership. Image available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c23278, obtained from Wikimedia.

As noted last time, Bad Trouble is the kind of tangle that involves much of the organization. People focus on it intently for weeks or months or more. They worry about the security of their jobs, or the future of the organization. As described last time, a common approach to coping with Bad Trouble is concealment, or deflecting the attention of those who assume responsibility for resolving the trouble.

But there are also a few coping strategies that are more constructive. Below is a brief catalog of coping strategies I've personally witnessed.

Act responsibly
When Bad Trouble first becomes clear, the choice to act responsibly can be frightening, but it often leads to the safest and most effective path. To act responsibly is to accept Bad Trouble's consequences for yourself, until you can find a resolution of the trouble.
Those consequences can be dire in the short term. But if you're certain that you can deal with what comes in the short term, having acted responsibly can be the key to long-term survival.
Demonstrate leadership
As Bad Trouble becomes obvious to all, and some start behaving in ways inconsistent with the high ideals of the organization, to demonstrate leadership is to demonstrate a confident belief that the team can find a path forward. [Nichols 2020]
Prompt decisions A common approach to coping with Bad
Trouble is concealment, or deflecting the
attention of those who assume responsibility
for resolving it. But there are also a few
more constructive coping strategies.
that enable all to adapt to the changing circumstances are the foundation of that demonstration of confidence. And that sense of confidence is contagious. It enables the team to deliver despite the Bad Trouble, while sustaining in the team a strong sense of caring for each other.
Two kinds of collaborations are likely to appear soon after the people of the organization become generally aware that Bad Trouble has arrived. Collaborations of the First Kind are designed to conceal, deny, or otherwise minimize the existence of the Bad Trouble. These collaborations are best regarded as conspiracies.
Collaborations of the Second Kind are alliances intended to resolve the Bad Trouble — to apply problem-solving techniques to limit the damage that might otherwise occur. These collaborations are best regarded as problem-solving teams. One approach such collaborations employ involves distributing responsibility for resolution across a set of people that either have a solution in hand or have the resources needed to find one. If that isn't possible, they might distribute the consequences of living with the problem across a set of people so large that they can readily accept the consequences if they know trouble is happening.
Both kinds of collaborations can arise contemporaneously. Some people can belong to collaborations of both kinds. Involvement with a conspiracy is risky if you intend to remain in the organization for a significant period, because conspiracies tend to unravel with time. Involvement with a problem-solving team is preferable — provided a problem solution actually exists.
Addressing some forms of Bad Trouble requires the attention and energy of people with more organizational power than the people who are most affected by the Bad Trouble. Indeed, the more powerful might even be unaware of the Bad Trouble until someone who's affected delivers the news.
Making the decision to escalate might require courage. In some cultures, escalating entails a risk of being disciplined for escalating prematurely or unnecessarily. Those who "own" the escalation procedures are obliged to make escalation criteria clear and unambiguous. They don't always fulfill these obligations effectively. If you're unsure about escalation, carefully consider balancing the risk of escalation against the consequences of failing to escalate an issue that you should have escalated.
Apply technology
This approach is attractive in high power distance cultures [Brenner 2019] where people expect that the tools they already have should be sufficient for addressing any problem that might arise.
To apply technology to resolve the Bad Trouble, people in such organizations find a tool or technique that makes the problem vanish, or which enables them to continue with their routine responsibilities while leaving the problem in place. This latter method is sometimes called a "workaround." Because they don't escalate the Bad Trouble, and because they assume that the solution must be close at hand, people in high power distance cultures sometimes use indefinitely workarounds that are more costly than actual solutions would be.

One more strategy for coping with Bad Trouble isn't really a coping strategy, even though it is in wide use. One might call it "Flight" or possibly, "Evasion." If you are a person, you can resign or otherwise exit the organization. If you are an organizational entity, you can reorganize yourself out of existence, or spin yourself off into a new form. Whether you are a person or an entity, Flight might result in separation from the problem by leaving it behind, or the problem might come along with you in some form. Relocating or reforming yourself doesn't always address the real problem. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Illusory Management: I  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .


[Nichols 2020]
Chris Nichols, Shoma Chatterjee Hayden, and Chris Trendler. "4 Behaviors that help leaders manage a crisis," Harvard Business Review, April 2, 2020. Available here. Back
[Brenner 2019]
Richard Brenner. "Power Distance and Teams," Point Lookout blog, October 23, 2019. Available here. Back

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