Critical moments are transition points in our lives and work. They are moments of decision, of action, of negotiation, of beginnings and of endings. They are critical because they ask something of us that normal situations may not. They are critical because they can set us on a path forward or set us back. We often don’t know.
These critical moments sometimes show up unannounced.
I was on vacation once when I got word that my boss had resigned. As the youngest and least senior member of the professional staff, I knew that if he was going, that I would probably follow shortly after.
I was not prepared for that critical moment. From it though, I learned how to face ones in the future.
These critical moments cover a wide array of situations. There are job transitions like mine was. There is the termination of a client contract that is needed to meet payroll. There are the moments of interpersonal conflict on a work team. There are decisions about expansion, acquisitions and the sale of the company. Each one of these moments is a transition from where we were to where we will be.
Improving Clarity, Communication, and Agility
If we look at these moments from the perspective of my Circle of Impact model of leadership, we can see a greater spectrum of critical moments impacting our organizations and us by identifying them according to the three dimensions of ideas, relationships, and organizational structure.
In the ideas dimensions, the critical moments are ones of clarity.
Are we clear about how our values matter in a moment of communication with a client? Are we clear about the company’s purpose when an offer to buy seems more about the company’s financial assets that its products and people? Are we clear as business partners about our vision for the changes that are needed to achieve the goals we originally set out to accomplish?
Within the dimension of relationships, communication is always a critical moment. For clarity of communication is not just being clear about what we have to say, but also what we want people to hear and how they are to respond. This clarity is a critical moment of trust.
The moment when we find ourselves at the point of terminating a person’s employment is an especially critical one. There is the decision to terminate, and just as important, how the termination is carried out.
It is a critical moment when the termination is of a long-term employee whose role has changed and is no longer necessary. This is why my employment was terminated in the story above.
It is a critical moment not just for the person who is leaving, but also for other employees who are watching to see how the termination is handled. It is a critical moment of trust that is either enhanced or weakened by the actions of the termination.
The organizational structure dimension is filled with critical moments every day. There are moments of decision about products and services, operations, finance and the governance of the company.
Over the past four decades, I have been present with organizational leaders as they face the critical moments that arise from the challenges of complexity and the pace of change. This is why clarity and trust are foundational strengths for an agile organization.
Without the strengths of the ideas and relationships dimension, it is easy to fall back – a very apt term – on past ways of doing things. We may miss altogether that the critical moment requires significant change, rather than simply improvement.
It is for this reason that these critical moments require us to be present minded.
Learning to Become Situationally Aware
The idea of being present or mindful has become an important practice for many people. It provides them with a sense of groundedness in the moment. It is a way for them to be their true selves in the moment where chaos and complexity seem to be swirling around them.
I’d like to characterize this idea of being present as a way of being situationally aware. It is not just that we know who we are in the critical moment, but we also what is transpiring around us.
Are we sufficiently present to see and hear the conflict and confusion that someone involved in the situation is feeling? If we are talking about a critical moment for a work team, our sense of presence gets us out of our own heads, and the importance of forcing our own agendas on the team, so that we can listen and process what we are hearing from others.
Develop this skill of being present, where you are able to listen and empathize and your value to the team grows exponentially. It does not mean that you are taking control of the situation. Rather, you are helping to create an open and safe environment for the team to find common ground for moving forward. This skill of presence is one of being a facilitator of people coming together to move forward in tandem.
This skill of being present is one that we must learn. It isn’t a natural skill or perspective. I find that we are often unaware of just how much our past experience dictates our attitudes and behaviors in these critical moments.
For example, at the decisive moment where change must be implemented, how many people delay or resist because the change makes them uncomfortable? We each bring our past experiences into the present moment not realizing how influential they are. By learning to be situationally aware, to be present-in-the-moment, we can see these critical moments for what for they truly are.
The value of being present in the critical moment is that we gain an agility that enables us to move through the transitions of these critical moments more quickly. We gain greater unity and cooperation as team members, and, the emotional wear and tear on us are diminished.
With the capacity of being present in the critical moment, our capacity and our organization’s capacity for leadership impact grows.