The day has torn you down to your last nerve and one of your direct reports just screwed up in front of the whole team in a meeting. Now what?

You’ve taught that same service skill over and over, yet one of your people just fumbled it (again) and now a key client relationship is in jeopardy. There’s a collective inhale from bystanders as he tries to explain himself. Your move.

A peer presents your idea as her own in a staff meeting and your boss, overflowing with gratitude for such a brilliant solution, takes the opportunity to promote her, on the spot, to the position you really earned. What to do?

Try as we might, we cannot (and never could) control all of the circumstances that come our way. Stuff happens. Some people hate that and burn a lot of calories trying to figure out how to fix it (Dilbert is only funny because it’s true). What a waste of time!

I’ve learned a thing or two from watching clients deal with unpleasant surprises. The most effective leaders we work with understand the “emotional math” inherent in any situation. It looks like this:


“E” represents the uncontrollable variable: the event. It is what it is. However, the “R” in the equation represents your response, and, believe it or not, that’s something we decide and therefore can control. Adding those together determines the outcome — the “O” in emotional math. It may not go exactly your way, but you’ll certainly impact how things turn out.

However, if you’re a leader, the equation is slightly different:


We sometimes underestimate our impact. Whether we realize it or not, as a leader, people watch us. Words, actions, facial expressions, and tone are scrutinized and parsed for meaning. You are the culture, the entire organization, the “they” talked about at the water cooler, and the one that sets the tone for everyone that answers to you (hey, no pressure).

So the “n” represents the number of people that see or hear about your response to the “E.” The impact of your reaction to a surprise event multiplies exponentially based on the number of witnesses. If it’s OK for a leader to act that way, it must be OK for everyone else. Would that knowledge alter your reaction the next time you get caught flat-footed? Just do the math …