On Getting Punched in the Face

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face" — Mike Tyson

Regardless of how well you prepare; regardless of how well you have thought through every course of action; regardless of how well you planned for every potential outcome, you are going to get punched in the face. What happens next is far more important than all of your planning and preparation. We see this all the time when we take teams to climb mountains—inevitably a mountain will punch you in the face. Our teams prepare for months for what usually turns to out to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging experience of their lives—they are well trained, have all the right gear, and know all they can about the mountain—and then everything goes sideways. Regardless of whether you are climbing a mountain, or preparing for a new product launch, marketing campaign, or major project, what really matters is not how well you and your team has prepared, but how well you manage yourself and others after you get hit. So, how do you prepare for a punch you haven’t yet received?

1. Don’t stick to a failing course of action. Regardless of all the time that goes into developing a plan, a plan is really just a “best guess.” Avoid putting so much weight into this guess. Is your plan working? If it isn’t, change it. However, once we have committed to something, we tend to commit more and more resources to make it succeed, even when it continues to fail. This is the so called ‘sunk cost effect’.   We hope that with just a little more time, effort, resources, etc. we can turn things around. We tend to forget the old proverb ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’.  On the mountain, we have seen groups maintain dysfunctional pattern for 8-10 hours, and yet no one speaks up to make a change.  It’s hard to admit that a project or product launch isn’t going well, but you can’t make positive changes until you acknowledge there is a problem. 

2. Lean on your team. Are you taking everything you need from the team? When you get punched in the face, you go into survival mode. This “fight or flight” mode actually bypasses rational thought and we innately begin to narrow our focus to all the potential threats in our environment. We tend to get very focused on our own safety and survival, and forget that we have a ton of resources that surround us. Think of the last time you were really hungry, or really cold. What was your mindset? You could probably focus on little else other than food or warmth. It is exactly the same when you feel stress or pressure at work.  Use your teammates for physical, emotional, psychological, etc. support.

3. Are you giving everything you can to the team? We can become very self-focused when we are placed in challenging situations, concentrating and worrying about our own needs. Naturally, we become less aware of the needs of our teammates, but this can really undermine performance in the long run. On one of our recent trips, we encountered some unseasonably cold and wet weather, and it really challenged the team physically, mentally, and interpersonally. There were team members who were clearly struggling very early into the trip, but the challenging conditions prevented team members from focusing on anything but themselves. By the time we stepped in to address this a good portion of the team was mildly hypothermic, and it had sapped a good deal of the mental and physical energy of the team.  Does someone look cold? Make them add layers or change wet clothing. Does someone look exhausted? Lighten their load by carrying some of their equipment, or just take their back pack.  At work, can you see other team members who are stressed over a deadline or tired from multiple long days on the job?  Ask what you can do to help.  Sometimes asking is all it takes to help the person out, as they feel less isolated and part of the team again. 

4. Change your lens. This is both the easiest and the hardest one to accomplish; however, we can choose how we frame our reality.  Decades of research has unequivocally shown that what we experience is far less important than how we perceive what we experience. Are you a victim, or a survivor? Is this a setback, or a challenge? This lens through which you view your experiences affects everything from learning and health to happiness and resilience.

Remember that everyone gets punched in the face sometime. It is your response that determines your long term success as a leader. 

Darrin Kass is a Professor of Management at Bloomsburg University and occasionally partners with LEEP on trainings.  His area of expertise is leadership and team development.