How To Survive A Shitshow At Work

Ah, the shitshow. It comes in many forms and can strike at any time. It can be as minor as a dinner party gone awry, or it can play out on a national stage, like that time in 2013 when the federal government shut down for 2 weeks because they didn’t want to play nice with each other.

What I’m talking about it somewhere in between. The mini disaster at work that isn’t going to cost you your job, but requires damage control.

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Personally, I am at the tail-end of just such an event. I, unfortunately, was the catalyst for this particular event. I misunderstood something that a customer wanted, and it set off a chain reaction of events that quickly escalated into something much bigger. Much shittier.

The details would bore you, but it wasn’t good. There was just a breakdown in communication. Which, incidentally, is the cause for pretty much most problems is it not? Gil works with 8 year old kids all day long and has taught them to resolve conflict with rock paper scissors so everything is fair and there are no misunderstandings. Maybe we should implement that in corporate America…. but I digress.

Anyhow, a work shitshow takes many forms: A new boss doesn’t understand your process at all and slams you in a review. You messed up a purchase order that is going to impact inventory in your store for weeks. You almost gave the wrong dosage of medication to a patient. Your panties fell down in front of a group of high school students as you were dancing on stage as Minnie Mouse.

These are all things that have happened to people I know. It’s not fun. But there are some things you can do to mitigate the damage and survive the situation with grace. This happens to be my personal list for just such an event.

1. Own up.

I’m listing this as number 1 because not only is it the first thing I think you should do, but because I actually think it’s the most important. And what is that saying – the hardest part is admitting there is a problem? Once you identify it, own up to your part in it.

The minute I realized my mistake with this customer, I let my boss know and took full responsibility. You know, after that gut punch feeling had passed and I had bolstered myself with caffeine and chocolate (which you may want to skip so you’re not vibrating down the hall).

2. Wear a power outfit. And fierce eyeliner.

This one sounds silly, but stay with me on this. Basically, do whatever you can to build up your confidence and keep yourself feeling good. I went into work today with a killer outfit on and perfect cat-eye liquid eyeliner. Head held high. Because whether it’s an incident meeting you have to attend, or you’re just going into the office in the midst of the drama, you owe it to yourself to be kind even if everyone around you isn’t.

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Plus, if you don’t go in with your tail between your legs and your head down, people will be less likely to try to pile on blame and will instead see you as the confident, capable employee you are, who just happens to have made a mistake. People tend to use your behavior as a cue for how they are allowed to treat you.

3. Be loud. With intent. 

The squeaky wheel gets the grease right? If there were other issues in play that contributed to your own personal shitshow, be vocal about them. But beware – timing and tact are critical here. This is not about using outside circumstances as an excuse. Remember number 1 – OWN IT.

However, if there are other issues that need to be evaluated that may have contributed to the problem, point them out. But make sure you are bringing solutions and ideas to the table, otherwise it just sounds like a complaint. If you can approach your team with the attitude of “Hey, I know I dropped the ball here, and in the interest of making sure it doesn’t happen again, I’ve been looking at our process and I think there are some simple improvements we can make,” you put yourself in a much better position. You’ve now made yourself an active part of a solution. Sweet.

4. Agree on a plan for the future. 

Once you’ve brought your suggestions and insights to the table, make sure everyone is clear on how similar situations will be handled in the future. Maybe there is a process change that needs to be implemented – agree on  how is that going to be communicated, who is going to enforce the change, etc.

This is when you will really learn a lot about your colleagues’ personal communication styles. Some may prefer to be completely non-confrontational and need to be handled more gently than others. Some respect blunt directness more than anything. Take note of how everyone handles the shitshow and the plan for moving forward, and make note so you know how to best approach them in the future.

5. Move on.

Open a bottle of wine. Get a massage. Go test drive an entirely impractical car. I did all 3 of these things over the weekend. I didn’t think about work once. And while there will still be some fallout from this particular shitshow, it’s manageable and it’s not some shadow looming over me.

That frees me up to keep doing what I need to do and bring in business, which is my number 1 priority. And for me, I’m lucky enough to work for a great company where people want to collaborate to make things better, and this is just a blip on the radar. A learning experience.

If you happen to work for a company or a boss who has no interest in actually working through this process with you, then moving on might actually mean moving on from that job or that boss.

I’ve been in that situation too – I had a boss whose idea of conflict resolution included hurling a teapot in my general direction and screaming at me in front of the rest of the office.

I quit. His company went under. So sometimes things work out the way they’re supposed to. Because while we are all going to experience a shitshow at work every once in awhile, it should definitely be the exception, not the rule.

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