Many news agencies are reporting on the “polar vortex” this week. It’s an evocative phrase and I wanted to add to the conversation, from my non-meteorological perspective.
What is a “polar vortex” you ask? According to CNN, it is the “circulation of strong, upper-level winds… that change in intensity from time to time. When those winds decrease significantly…the result is a jet stream that plunges deep into southern latitudes, bringing the cold, dense Arctic air spilling down with it.”
Let’s think about this from a business context, since workplace communication is our focus. Have you ever experienced a pressure change at work, notably from above? Were you sitting at your desk, working on a project, when in a moment you felt something change in the energy around you, a more “icy” sensation blasting through the office? Has your boss all of a sudden started acting differently, more reticent or aloof, disconnected, on angry? My bet is that at one time a supervisor, leader, executive, or someone higher up has mandated uncomfortable changes in a brisk manner, generally wore a façade that something was bothersome or problematic, or directly expressed frustration at or with you. How do you handle such a distortion?
I suggest there are 4 things you can do when that happens.
Put on a “layer” to protect against the cold. At least on an emotional front, thicken your skin for a few moments as you remember that the vortex is not you; you are just in it. Breathe or count to ten; stop what you are doing and remind yourself that you can handle this. As soon as you sense the “cold,” do something nice for yourself or someone around you and give yourself some “extra padding” to withstand the “blast.”
Find “warmth” in yourself. Remember the times when you have been on the other side and look for some compassion and empathy for all involved in the “stream”, including those that represent the “upper level winds.” There likely was a time when you were frostier than you meant to be. Consider the pressure from above or outside the company or even at home that they might be feeling. Often that will slow down the reaction to thinking they are simply being mean.
Check your own “temperature.” Did you contribute to any part of the “cold front” that came your way? Is there some way you impacted the situation, which resulted in your supervisor’s frustration? Being able to first recognize and then articulate and own your accountability are some of the more helpful ways to de-escalate reactions and frustrations.
Speed up the “winds” to shift back to normal. If it does involve you, work as soon as possible with your boss to see what you can do to support and solve the situation. Even if it doesn’t directly involve you, lending a helpful hand may promote a speedier recovery and the “jet stream” can get back on track to allow the climate to warm up.
All in all, when a cold front sweeps in to your workplace, do your best to stay calm and don’t take it personally, give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is frosty, be accountable to any part you played and work quickly to problem-solve so you can help everyone move past the situation. You will demonstrate your professionalism, emotional intelligence, and prevent further stress and angst for yourself and others. Barring a truly cataclysmic chain of events, the polar vortex will dissipate before much damage is done and warmth returns.
Let us know if you’ve ever encountered a polar vortex at work, the challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve handled it.