Problem Response: The Cockroach Theory

Dec. 17, 2018

Don’t let little mishaps get the better of you.

Have you ever been in a stressful situation, or made a stupid mistake that made you want to pull your hair out? Instances like this are bound to occur in the corporate world, as in daily life. Although we can’t prevent these situations all the time, we can control how we respond to them.

Stressful, ugly problems like this can be likened to a cockroach, an insect people generally dislike and even fear. When you notice a cockroach crawling across your shoe or idling on your desk, your first reaction might be to scream and run away without looking back. On the other hand, you might suppress that startled reaction and instead respond by calmly brushing the cockroach away. In both scenarios, the problem (aka, the cockroach) stays the same, but the way you choose to respond to it changes how stressful it seems.

Responding to Stress

The way we handle problems can be broken down into two categories: an intentional positive response, and an impulsive negative reaction. When your back is against the wall and the pressure is on, positive responses to stress come in four flavors: action, analysis, urgency, and empathy. Let’s say you’ve made a mistake on the job, which reflects poorly on your work reputation as well as delaying the project deadline. Instead of dwelling on feelings of embarrassment or frustration, you need to respond to the problem by analyzing the situation and finding solutions to the issue with positive urgency.

Reacting to problems negatively with panic or anger is typically our gut reaction, like a deer being caught in headlights and freezing up in the face of danger. You might even feel guilty, regardless of whether you could have prevented the problem or not. When you shut down defensively instead of showing up to help, your team has to spend time managing your feelings before they can help you solve the problem.

Even if a problem you had no part in arises, don’t waste time blaming and scolding others for causing it; would a firefighter stop to ask who set the building ablaze before rushing to put it out? In the heat of the moment, suppressing a negative reaction in favor of delivering a positive and thought-out response is the best course of action you can take.

Lasting Benefits

Learning how to respond to stress positively not only improves your work ethic, but also benefits the people around you. The example you set really can rub off on coworkers (and even superiors) in your office. Analyzing the problem instead of letting it get you agitated is guaranteed to get you to the right solution as soon as possible. So, the next time you’re thinking about lighting your office on fire to get rid of the cockroach on your desk, remember: it’s just one little bug.

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