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Multiple Big Decisions - Fight/Flight/Freeze, or Freedom?

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You've seen it over and over again, haven't you? 

People facing multiple challenges simultaneously, all of which have potentially critical impacts on organizational life - and they freeze up. Or they start playing the blame game. Or they spend all their time on other things, ignoring the situation. And usually they do all three.

I was that guy. I got stuck there - a young leader in fight / flight / freeze, held hostage by my own organization. But I got out of that, and so can you. There were six simple things I did.

Can you relate to this story?

In my first job after college, I led an organization that required juggling a lot of crucial decisions: they were unable to regularly pay their bills on time, they had a building that was 4 times too big for them, key leaders couldn’t get along with each other, they had lost their sense of purpose, everyone was protecting their own turf, they had fired their last full-time leader, they thought they knew everything about what needed to happen – no outside suggestions, please – and, to top it all off, the organizational structure reinforced the status quo.

And I was 26 years old, straight out of school, brimming with new ideas, the “new guy,” the “young guy.” And I had to navigate all of that to get things on track.

Can I just say – it was brutal. And I was stuck in that fight-flight-freeze mode. I was essentially held hostage by my own organization.

So how did I get out of that extremely frustrating situation? Six things:

  1. I "chunked the problem". When trying to deal with the situation as a whole, I had over 60 items that had to be dealt with simultaneously. Too much for anyone, really. So I broke the problem down into component parts. 
  2. I set boundaries. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, and people (and situations) want your time as though they are the only thing. I set boundaries to make sure I was working on what really needed to happen, not someone else's emergency.
  3. I worked on what could be done. Some of the things that were the clearest and most obvious that needed to happen (at least to me) weren't going to happen right away. So I found those things where there was consensus, or could get consensus quickly, and resolved those things. This cleared some things off the table that demonstrated progress and reduced the 
  4. I distributed the heat. Each decision and resolution caused some people to get upset. So I created the alliances necessary to move things forward without all of the pressure coming back on me. This meant that people saw that there was a group working on something rather than a lone wolf. 
  5. I used resistance as information. When someone resisted a change, I took the time to unearth what was going on with them - to see why they were resisting. And when I did so, I did my best (although not always with success) to look at things from their perspective, so I didn't reduce them to their worst faults. 
  6. I persisted. Even when the going got really tough - a story for another day - I stuck with it. I saw it through. I knew what success looked like, and I got us there. 

What did success look like?

  • An organization united around purpose.
  • An organization that had its financial and facility assets and responsibilities matched to its size.
  • An organization with a choice to continue or disband (rather than being in survival mode).

While these successes might sound pretty basic, these were not things the organization had when I started, and they were the baseline for any future growth. 

What does your story look like?

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