Fast Company

Don't Get Mad - Get Over It!

Work wouldn't be work without its day-to-day delays and defeats. If you can't get over them, you'll never get along. Meet three great contenders who can show you how to cope.

Clusters of nervous people milled about the green room, behind the soundstage of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." They were waiting to snatch a nanosecond of fame as guests on a program about overcoming setbacks. Paul Stoltz, 39, an author and organizational consultant with 19 years of experience in studying the emotional and neurological dynamics of coping, was the show's expert. Hoping to put a fellow guest at ease, he walked over to her and extended his hand: "My name is Paul Stoltz."

"Nice to meet you," she replied.

"And you are...?" Stoltz was prompting for a name -- but what he got was a caption. "My boyfriend broke up with me two years ago, and I can't get over it," she said.

Recalling the incident six months later, Stoltz is still incredulous. "On the show, she might have been described as 'Dumped by Boyfriend,' " he says. "But that label didn't come off when she left the studio. 'Dumped by Boyfriend' had become her identity -- because, by her own admission, she couldn't get over being dumped."

Stoltz, president and CEO of Peak Learning Inc., based in Flagstaff, Arizona, helps people at companies such as Deloitte & Touche, Hewlett-Packard, and Abbott Labs to "get over" the inevitable round of bad news on the job. He says he frequently meets various workplace versions of that talk-show guest: "Missed Promotion," "Downsized," "Lost Big Account." But he's also met resilient folks -- people who know how to bounce back from workaday adversity.

"People who cope have developed what I call a high 'adversity quotient,' " says Stoltz. "AQ is the subconscious, underlying script that we rely on as we try to think through any difficult situation."

Stoltz contends that your AQ, unlike your IQ, can be readily improved: "Instead of giving in to a knee-jerk reaction to bad news, you can learn to slow down, to get a grip, and to decide consciously on the best way to proceed."

To see how this process plays out in practice, we tracked down three high-AQ businesspeople. These high achievers have trained their brains to spot the things that they can (and cannot) control whenever a hurricane-force problem blows through their lives. As a result, they have radically improved their ability to get over setbacks -- and to get on with their work.

Coordinates: Paul Stoltz, paul@peaklearning.com

Get Over: The Crisis You Inherited

It was late last September when Chris Powell, 31, was blindsided by a work emergency. Powell, the director of employment strategy for Marriott International, got a call asking why the hotel chain had dropped the ball on its sponsorship of the upcoming Black MBA Association conference. The annual event, which draws more than 10,000 people, is a prime recruiting opportunity for Marriott.

In fact, Powell wasn't even aware that the ball had been dropped. The sales department, not his department, was usually responsible for planning the event. Even worse, Marriott usually spent six months getting ready for it. Powell had just five days.

"There's no way that we can pull this together in time," thought Powell. He wanted to unload his anger on the sales department, but he checked that entirely human impulse and used the tight deadline to help him focus. "The more you vent, the more you waste time," he says. "I had more important things to do."

Even though he hadn't caused the problem, Powell was responsible for resolving it, since his department would suffer most from the fallout. He stopped thinking about the difficulty of the task and concentrated instead on what he could do. He made a list: Someone had to write and shoot a video that would run during the awards dinner at the conference. He also had to find a senior executive who would speak at the event and who would present a scholarship -- a tough request, especially on such short notice.

The next day, Powell flew a prop plane to Detroit, where the conference would be held. He wrote a script and took the lead in producing the video, and he found a Marriott manager to hand out the scholarship. He also made amends with the Black MBA Association, which was more baffled than angered by Marriott's performance.

"I was pretty pleased with what we accomplished in such a short period of time," Powell says. "Behind the stage, it was completely chaotic. But when the curtain went up, we were calm and steady."

Stoltz says that "taking ownership" is one of the critical steps toward getting over a setback. Powell recalls that he took ownership once he realized that the crisis was really an opportunity for him to prove himself. "It's like getting a chance to play Superman," he says. "You fly in and save the day. The problem became a high-adrenaline project that tested my resolve."

Coordinates: Chris Powell, chris.powell@marriott.com

Get Over: Fighting a Lost Cause

Melissa Giovagnoli, 43, couldn't believe it. A much-sought-after speaker and management trainer, she had agreed to deliver the keynote speech for a conference on "customer focus" at a subsidiary of Canon. But just four days before the program, the company canceled her speech after discovering that it needed to cut back on spending.

Giovagnoli, author of six books, did a slow burn as she calculated the number of hours that she had spent preparing for the client: "I'll have to eat more than 20 hours of prep time," she thought. "And I turned down another assignment for this!"

Her first instinct was to fight for what she felt was rightfully hers. The company had reneged on a deal; she should at least get compensated for the time that she had put in. But where would that lead? She'd get mad, the company would get mad, and she would have to kiss any future work with that employer goodbye. She realized that she was fretting over the one thing that she couldn't control -- the company's decision.

Giovagnoli decided that what really mattered to her was not this one project: Her ultimate goal was to establish a relationship with this company, which is based near her hometown of Schaumburg, Illinois. Giovagnoli called the company's training director and put the ball in her court by asking how the relationship could be salvaged. The director, impressed by Giovagnoli's eagerness to focus on the long term, renegotiated the deal at a lower fee -- with an added provision for follow-up consulting. Today Giovagnoli feels that the setback actually helped her build a strong relationship with key people at a new client company.

"If I had pointed my finger at them and said, 'You did this to me,' I would have put them on the defensive," says Giovagnoli. "I had to focus on the long-term relationship -- because that's the thing I could have a say in." But that isn't always easy to do, she admits.

Most of us, Stoltz explains, have a tough time letting go of things that we can't control. "The trick," he says, "is to reframe the situation in your mind and to focus on the things that you can control."

Coordinates: Melissa Giovagnoli, megnetwork@aol.com

Get Over: That Panic Attack

Mary Rodino, 44, had worked hard to build a new sales department at AT&T during the mid-1990s. As general manager of global voice and data services for the Chicago market, she and a visionary vice president had put together a crack sales team, whose assignment was to approach multimillion-dollar corporate clients that had left AT&T and to persuade them to come back. Not exactly an easy task.

The team was hugely successful -- so much so that senior executives began poking around to see why this band of radicals was racking up such stellar numbers. The executives discovered that the team's commission structure gave its reps a larger slice of the sale than corporate rules usually allowed. Envy began to brew in other sales divisions, and the company decided to include Rodino's team in a planned corporate "restructuring." Meanwhile, Rodino's boss -- the visionary vice president -- took on a new role within the company.

"When the VP moved on, we no longer had the same air cover," Rodino says. "And the bullets started to penetrate our defenses."

Rodino's team was reorganized according to skill specialties rather than according to customers. She was asked to scale back her team and to trim each member's bonus and commission plan. Her account executives were told that they had to reinterview for their new, reengineered jobs.

Rodino's first reaction to this apparent corporate lunacy was understandable: She thought, "We've built this amazing team, and not only does the company not appreciate it, but this restructuring is going to destroy it."

The future looked dim. Fewer people meant longer hours. She wouldn't get to spend as much time with her daughters as she did now. She'd have to fire people she cared about. The team's morale would tank. As the situation grew bleaker, the conversation in her head grew more frantic.

Suddenly she snapped out of her dark reverie. "I'm responsible for the people in this department," she thought, "and it's up to me to protect them." That realization galvanized Rodino. She concluded that the best way to help people was to encourage them to sell like hell. "We couldn't stop the storm, but making our sales goals was our best shot at weathering it."

Rodino did what she could to keep her team's attention focused on the market rather than on internal politics. Even so, about one-third of her staff resigned within the year. Rodino tried to find other opportunities within the company for those who remained, and several members of her original team were promoted. But she also had to let several people go. Rodino herself eventually left AT&T to join OnePoint Communications, a Chicago-based Internet-service provider, where she is a vice president and general manager.

"Some people couldn't stay focused," Rodino says. "They got caught up in rumors about what was going to happen and in talk about how awful AT&T was, as opposed to pouring their energy into the job. That was a mistake."

Stoltz refers to this mistake as "catastrophizing" -- allowing a negative response pattern to spread like an emotional wildfire. The best way to stop catastrophizing is to knock your brain off its neurological path by giving it some kind of physical jolt. Stoltz recommends snapping a rubber band that you wear around your wrist or smacking a desk with your hand. Think of this technique as a Zen slap of awakening: The distraction will force you to see your negative spiral for what it is, while helping you refocus on your work.

Snapping a rubber band? Stoltz admits that at first, some of his tactics will feel forced, or even silly. But over time, he says, you'll progress from unconscious incompetence (you don't even know that you're bad at "getting over it") to unconscious supercompetence (you recover and move on without even trying). After all, wouldn't you rather be a master coper than a talk-show guest with a whiny label?

Coordinates: Mary Rodino, mary.rodino@onepointcom.com

Quiz: Can You Deal?

You probably know whether you have nerves of steel -- or nerves of rubber. But do you understand why? This quick quiz, adapted from one developed by Paul Stoltz, will help you highlight which part of coping is hard for you. Consider each of the following scenarios. Then circle the number that best represents your answer to the question.

[ 1 ] Your investment in Surf's Up Inc. declines by 50%. How much control do you have over this situation?

no control : 1 2 3 4 5 : complete control

[ 2 ] Your request for a promotion is turned down. To what extent are you responsible for dealing with this setback?

not responsible at all : 1 2 3 4 5 : completely responsible

[ 3 ] You've completed your assignment -- but your boss is unhappy with the outcome. To what extent does your boss's criticism affect your overall outlook?

greatly affects it : 1 2 3 4 5 : doesn't affect it at all

[ 4 ] You decide not to help a coworker who is preparing a presentation to your company's CEO. How long will the reason that you did not help continue to exist?

always exist : 1 2 3 4 5 : never exist again

[ 5 ] Your company kills the project that you're working on. How much control do you have over this situation?

no control : 1 2 3 4 5 : complete control

[ 6 ] Your new boss rebuffs your attempts to discuss your revenue projections for the fourth quarter -- without telling you why. To what extent do you feel responsible for dealing with this problem?

not responsible at all : 1 2 3 4 5 : completely responsible

[ 7 ] Your teammates say that your pitch is the worst proposal they've ever heard. How does their rejection affect your overall outlook?

greatly affects it : 1 2 3 4 5 : doesn't affect it at all

[ 8 ] You're too busy to take that vacation that you've planned. How long will the reason that you are unable to go continue to exist?

always exist : 1 2 3 4 5 : never exist again

Scoring Instructions A high total score (8 to 10) for questions 1 and 5 indicates that you are likely to take an active approach toward dealing with adverse events. If you scored low (2 to 5), think about whether bad news controls you.

A high score (8 to 10) for questions 2 and 6 shows that you're likely to hold yourself accountable for solving a problem. A low score (2 to 5) might mean that you rarely learn from your mistakes.

A high score (8 to 10) on questions 3 and 7 suggests that you're good at isolating a problem. A low score (2 to 5) demonstrates a tendency to catastrophize.

A high score (8 to 10) on questions 4 and 8 shows that you view each problem as fleeting and unlikely to occur again. If you scored low (2 to 5), then watch out -- you probably believe that a setback will keep you back.

Coordinates: Find a full, 40-question quiz at the Peak Learning Web Site, www.peaklearning.com

Sidebar: You Cope, Girl

In her book "Why So Slow?," Virginia Valian draws on studies in behavioral science to show that women experience a kind of under-the-radar adversity that they fail to recognize -- and therefore rarely address. Here's how it works.

How do gender-based setbacks manifest themselves? Consider this common scenario: A woman makes a suggestion in a meeting, but neither the men nor the other women in the group seriously consider it. A short time later, a man makes a similar suggestion. This time, the rest of the group listens closely.

Why does that matter? In your example, there is no overt discrimination. True. But the woman still lost out. And over the long run, even tiny amounts of bias add up to a significant disadvantage.

How should women respond to such a subtle setback? After the meeting, the woman might ask the group leader for advice on how to present her ideas effectively. That way, she can indicate that there's a problem -- without complaining about it. And in the next meeting, the leader will be more likely to listen to her -- and to get others to listen to her as well.

Coordinates: $30. "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women," MIT Press, 617-253-5646, http://mitpress.mit.edu

Cheryl Dahle (cdahle@fastcompany.com) is a senior writer at Fast Company.

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