Managing the Unexpected

What to Do When Things Go Wrong at Work

Group of business people having a business meeting
••• Shannon Faga / Stone / Getty Images

The saying "Nothing ever goes as planned" is as accurate at work as it is anywhere else. When things go wrong, it is often without warning. If you could prevent these mishaps from happening in the first place, you would. While some of these problems are predictable, most are not. That is why it is essential to know how to be able to identify and deal with these situations as soon as they arise. Here are some tips for managing the unexpected at work:

1. Expect Something to Go Wrong, Even If You Don't Know What

Always be on the lookout for problems. No one wants to be a doomsayer, but the earlier you recognize a complication exists, the more quickly you can begin to take steps to fix it. Excellent problem solving skills are crucial when dealing with these kinds of situations. They include your ability to recognize a problem's existence and then identify its cause.

A small mishap can grow into a big problem, and then into a crisis pretty fast unless immediate action is taken. When a problem is ignored or unrecognized, it will, over time, become increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to resolve. Your alertness can save your company from severe damage.

2. Don't Panic

Your base instinct may be to panic when something goes wrong. Your adrenaline will start to flow, which can spur you into action. However, it will also cloud your judgment. Your ability to stay calm is instrumental to your success in managing the unexpected. Panic causes us to blow small complications out of proportion. This emotional response could transform a little glitch into a massive crisis in your mind.

Take a deep breath and spend a moment or two evaluating the situation and thinking about what you need to do next. Although you should react quickly, don't be hasty. That will only lead to making misinformed decisions and taking unhelpful actions.

3. Prepare Solutions in Advance

While it's impossible to plan for every worst-case scenario, have a strategy in mind for dealing with things that are most likely to go wrong. For example, if you are in charge of a big conference your organization is hosting, be prepared for the caterer to cancel at the last minute or the sound system to malfunction. The day before the event, confirm with the caterer and check that the sound system is working.

Prioritize by planning for more common events, not ones that are improbable. If you worry about too many things going wrong, you will be unable to do your job. Adjust your plans as unlikely events become possible. For example, while you don't need a plan to respond to a hurricane in January, you do need one in July.

4. Use Your Critical Thinking Skills

In addition to excellent problem solving skills, superb critical thinking skills are also essential to successfully managing the unexpected at work. Take a systematic approach to solving both small complications and significant crises. Though quick action is imperative, take the time to come up with a few alternative solutions. Then evaluate them all before you choose the one you decide is best. If necessary, get input from your team and superiors, both when coming up with possible solutions and when selecting which one to implement.

5. Keep a List of Resources at Your Fingertips

When problems arise, and you need outside help to resolve them, a list of service providers will prove invaluable. Going back to the example of the conference and being prepared for a caterer to cancel at the last minute, have a list of other companies you can call. If you have an audio equipment repair person on your contact list, a sound system failure won't waylay your conference.

Depending on your organization's needs, include plumbers, electricians, computer experts, office equipment repair people, caterers, and temporary employment agencies on your contact list. Before hiring an outside service, make sure to have the approval of the person who controls the purse strings for your organization. Customize your contact list as necessary. Add to it as you find additional providers and delete contacts that don't come through for you or that are no longer in business. Network with your colleagues, even those at other organizations, for recommendations and reviews.

A quick and measured response to a critical situation will lessen the adverse effects on your organization and its bottom line. Your boss will appreciate your efforts to respond to a potentially damaging crisis.