Three Ways to Be the Thermostat
Great leaders set the temperature, especially when stress is high.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is: “Be the thermostat, not the thermometer.” A thermometer reads the temperature in a room and merely reflects it back. A thermostat reads the temperature in a room and then regulates it by turning up the heat or cooling it down.
In a work context, the temperature can be: levels of stress and anxiety, engagement, sense of urgency, or velocity of your team. As a leader, it’s not enough to just be able to read that temperature and reflect it back. It’s up to you to regulate it through your words, actions, and example — to bring it up or bring it down, given where your team needs to go.
Once you start thinking about leaders participating in team dynamics as thermometers versus thermostats, you can’t unsee it. When I observe leaders read a team’s state and then purposefully turn up the heat or cool it down, I think, “Now, there’s a thermostat at work.”
Here are three ways to be the thermostat with your team.
1. Normalize challenges.
Things go wrong, and that’s to be expected. When a team, especially one with inexperienced members, is dealing with a setback or an unexpected challenge, worry, concern, or panic can set in. When emotions are high, thinking isn’t clear and planning can go off the rails. It’s harder to be functional in the face of anxiety.
The thermostat in the room sees and communicates the following:
- Unexpected problems are par for the course.
- Everyone goes through them, and there’s not much new under the sun.
- This same exact challenge has happened before; therefore, we can handle it again.
It’s usually the more experienced folks who have seen the situation before, and therefore can show up calmly and easily say, “Yeah, this isn’t surprising. Here are a few approaches we can use to figure out what to do next.”
I’ve seen shoulders lower when they hear, “Oh this, this has happened before, and here’s how we handled it. This is just a bump in the road and we’ll get through it.” Normalizing challenges is a very powerful way to take down stress and make even the stickiest situations feel more tractable.
2. Frame the problem.
When a team is facing a challenge with multiple factors, when lots of elements are out of their control and there is a domino effect of scary dependencies, it’s a natural human thing to feel like everything’s falling apart — and to react with stress and anxiety.
“It’s all going to hell!”
“We are totally screwed.”
This is when it’s time to isolate and frame the problem around the things you can do.
Recently I’ve been enjoying Apple TV+’s For All Mankind, a soap opera involving space travel. In an episode deep into season three (no spoilers!), NASA scientists are gathered around a conference table in Houston and absolutely freaking out. Astronauts are in danger, their oxygen is running out, and there’s no workable rescue plan. When one of the leaders, Dev, proposes a plan, the reaction is immediate and fierce: It’s too dangerous! They will die if we miscalculate by even one meter! With everyone looking at him with wide eyes, Dev says calmly, “My friends, these are engineering problems. And we are engineers. Shall we begin?” And everyone gets to work.
When you can break a big challenge into its smaller parts, identifying the parts you can control and framing the challenge in front of the team as exactly what they’re able to do, a thermostat takes in the heat and turns it into action.
3. Put a clear plan forward.
“I don’t even know where to start.”
When a team or a person is overwhelmed by a big challenge and can’t see the path forward, a thermostat starts drawing the map. They say: “Okay, we’re going to chip away at this step by step. Here’s step 1, here’s step 2, and here’s step 3. Let’s start there, and regroup tomorrow.”
A clear plan channels everyone’s energy into action and staves off paralysis. Doing something that’s part of a clear plan calms the room and brings purpose and momentum in a time of overwhelm. Clarity around what happens next brings everyone’s stress levels down.
Be the thermostat
Becoming a thermostat takes practice. Team dynamics and emotions are contagious, so it’s easy to reflect back what the group is feeling but it can be harder to regulate it. However, once you start to observe the temperature of a room, and see how it’s not serving the group, you’ll realize you want to change it and you can — and you’ll appreciate the leaders who do.
Gina Trapani (she/her) is CEO at Postlight. Send her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.
Gina learned about the thermostat concept from Michael Hyatt on this podcast.
Story published on Oct 5, 2022.