You've just received a bad email. The boss is not happy because the client is not happy. The client is not happy because her boss is not happy. Why is he unhappy? Well, there are a few competing theories, but that's not important. For you, the important thing is that you fix it (somehow) right now. You need to snap to, tense up, scream bloody murder at everyone near you to show how seriously you're taking the problem and how hard your working on it, right?
Panic has never helped anyone in a bad situation. You can't make good decisions while freaking out and flailing. Anything done under those conditions will just be sowing seeds for the next inevitable meltdown. But, the insidious thing about panic is that its contagious. Once it latches on, it tends to spread to everyone else involved in a project (like a nasty case of pink eye at summer camp).
When things go wrong (and they will) and you find yourself on the receiving end of a tidal wave of panic, the important thing isn't immediate action, it's to break the cycle of panic. To quarantine yourself and your immediate team so you can think clearly, respond intelligently, and take the necessary steps to solve the problem.
Simply put, you need to take a breath.
I do a lot of dumb things with my personal time. Chief among these dumb things, I watch fighting game tournaments. I find them fascinating. At a high-level, fighting games are like speed-chess with punches. A lighting fast combination of mind games, strategy, dexterity, and reaction. For the uninitiated this probably sounds like the most frivolous thing in the world (it might be), but over the course of my wasted Saturday afternoons, I've made an instructive observation.
The person most likely to win is almost always the person who takes a small break after a loss.
Fighting game tournaments are always conducted under a serial format. Players compete in a series of matches to determine who is the better overall player rather than just a single bout. These games can be merciless pressure cooker. Young, nerdy men and women who might be shy introverts in their regular lives are suddenly thrust in front of a stage of hundreds (and an internet audience of thousands). Nerves, stress, and fatigue get the better of a lot of them. When defeated, especially if the loss was particularly one-sided or embarrassing, many of them respond by immediately jumping into the next match as soon as possible, eager to redeem themselves and put the sting of defeat behind them as quickly as possible.
But the best players don't. They take a moment. Despite the screaming fans, the pressure, or the humiliation of the previous match, they pause and reflect on what just happened. They digest the loss, analyze the problem, and adapt their approach. More often than not, that small difference in attitude is what separates the best players from the rest. Just taking a quick breath and a moment of reflection in the middle of a high-pressure situation defines the champion mindset.
While that may be the most nerdy example possible, it's not hard to extend the logic outward. When a crisis hits, you want the person who has to correct the problem to be calm and make sound decisions rather than rash actions.
Think of Chesley Sullivan. The audio recording of his miraculous Hudson landing paints a perfect picture of grace under stress. When those birds hit the engines of flight 1549, another pilot might have freaked out and tried to get the plane back to an airstrip in a desperate bid to save lives. But Sullivan remained calm, took stock of the situation, and realized that the obvious course of action would lead to more death. Instead, he took the appropriate course of action with an attitude of serene, measured calm, even though that course meant gliding a passenger jet into a river.
Listen to the audio recording between him and air traffic control. He explains the situation deftly and examines their options. After exhausting the possible landing strips with air control, he simply, flatly sates "We're going into the Hudson.” No panic, no back and forth, just a clear declarative course of action that saved the lives of everyone on that plane.
When working on a project where budgets, jobs, and reputations are on the line, there are bound to be bumps and worries. But when people start to panic, that's when you need to pump the brakes, step back, and break the cycle. Take a breath.