Avoiding O’Donohue’s Crisis Cyclone

Think quickly: On Monday, your regular monthly update with the CEO gets canceled. On Friday, the project status meeting led by a PM on your team doesn’t go well. The CEO – who is executive sponsor for this project and has been unhappy – is clearly furious. At the end of the meeting, she directs you and your boss to meet with her on Wednesday to discuss the situation in greater detail.

How freaked out are you by this situation?

What are you thinking? Are you wondering why she canceled your regular update? Are you afraid that you’re going to get fired? Are you questioning your team’s ability to get the project back on track and assuming that she is, too? Are you unsure what to do next? Do you wake up in the middle of the night, thoughts racing, heart pounding? Do your hands shake as you dial into that Thursday call?

This is typical of what Rob O’Donohue, an Executive Coach, and Senior Analyst at Gartner, calls a Crisis Cyclone: a swirling storm of thoughts, fears, doubt, uncertainty, stress, anxiety. Left unchecked, these symptoms can lead to burnout.

So what can you do?

In the short term, it can be challenging to pull yourself out of the storm. But O’Donohue provides a long-term practice that you can use to recognize the storm before it happens and head it off at the pass.

Step 1: Recognize the storm after it passes.

You may not be able to do much while the storm is upon you, but afterwards you can replay the footage and figure out what went wrong. But often, once the storm has passed, we move onto the next thing without recognizing we even experienced the cyclone.

So step 1 is to recognize that the storm even happened.

For myself, I’ve been cultivating the daily practice of work journaling. I take 15 minutes at the end of each day to write about what I felt went well that day, and why; and where I felt stuck, and why. Recently I also added the emotions these activities have brought up for me – this meeting made me angry, this one caused me to doubt myself. This virtual commute has helped me detach from work at the end of the day and also made me more aware of the passing storms.

Step 2: Take the time to pick the storm apart.

O’Donohue provides these questions to help you analyze your cyclone:

  • What was the triggering event?
    For me, it was the sudden request for the Thursday meeting.
  • What thoughts did the event trigger?
    I’m not living up to her expectations. I should be doing more. I suck. What if I get fired? What will people say about me? How will I find another job? Maybe I should leave project management altogether…but what would I do instead?
  • What emotions were experienced?
    Fear. Worry. Doubt. Anger at myself. Anxiety. Uncertainty about whether I could do this.
  • What body sensations did I experience?
    Shaky hands. Beating heart. All the symptoms of a panic attack.
  • How did I react / behave to feeling that way?
    Overthinking, going nuclear*, doomsday predicting, hamster-wheeling, cage rage. (On the positive side, I also rescheduled other priorities and dedicated a morning to getting into the weeds of the project to visualize what it was building and the process of building it.)

Step 3: Reflect on how you could react differently next time.

For example, I could have reminded myself that I get like this all the time and that only once – one time out of all the millions of time I’ve had panic attacks like this – has it been justified. Only once.

Even if my panic had been justified once a year or once a month, that is still such a small percentage of the total number of times that I have panicked, that I may as well not panic and just see what comes.

I could remind myself that the quarterly Board Meeting was on Tuesday; so it makes sense that the CEO cancelled Monday’s meeting. In fact, I had suggested it myself the previous week and had been told, No, it was fine where it was. (Which is what she tells me every quarter before cancelling it at the last minute.)

I could practice a guided meditation to focus on recognizing the bodily sensation of emotions and manage them.

I could do exactly what I did do: dig into the project operations with the PM and figure out what is going wrong with the project, then start to pull strings to get it back in line. So that, when I meet with the CEO, I’ve got progress to show. And, in fact, when the moment was right, I pulled out my charts to show her and she heaved a sigh of relief that at least someone else had felt as confused as she had been and was taking steps to create order out of chaos.

How does this help?

By teaching our body and mind to recognize the symptoms of a Crisis Cyclone, we are more likely to recognize it as it happens. It’s like a farmer who looks up into the sky, sees the swirling clouds on the horizon, feels the barometer dropping, and guides his family to the root cellar.

The more you practice recognizing the symptoms, the easier it will get to recognize the clouds on the horizon. Once you recognize it, you can take the next step and take evasive action to avoid getting caught in the storm. (Kind of like how Alex Honnold – the free climber who scaled the face of El Capitan without ropes in under 4 hours – describes how he prepares to climb.)

Hey, if I can do it, I know you can, too.

*My husband worked with a high-school urban debate league for many years. Going Nuclear is a term he invented to describe how the kids could take any topic and chain it up to nuclear war. One year, the topic was School Uniforms. Somehow the kids managed to find evidence that they could conflate to say that School Uniforms would eventually lead to Nuclear War. They were kids, so cut them a break, but I do wish they had chained up to something like a Global Pandemic or Climate Change instead.

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