What to Do When You’re Out of Control

“Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking. We have a situation.” And with those words, the saga of my aborted flight from New York to Dallas began.

The captain told us we had an “equipment problem” that required we make an emergency landing at Washington Dulles, the nearest airport. But, he continued, the plane was too heavy to land safely; we had to shed fuel. So we would fly around in a circle for 45 minutes and land as soon as we were light enough.

I was sitting at the front of the plane and made eye contact with the flight attendant.

“What’s the problem?” I mouthed.

“I don’t know,” she responded with the hint of a shrug, “they won’t tell us.”

“If we’re going to fly for 45 minutes, can’t he fly toward Dallas instead of in circles?” I asked. She smiled and looked down.

So we circled. If you had taken a picture of us before the announcement and another one after, you would have had difficulty telling the difference. People were reading, listening to music, talking softly.

But in fact, everything had changed. Our level of anxiety had skyrocketed. We were on a plane that was stuck in the air, unable to land but apparently unsafe to fly for a reason none of us but the pilot knew, and there was nothing we could do about it.

It occurred to me how psychologically similar this circumstance was to so many others we experience. We were stuck in a situation in which we are not in control and cannot immediately escape. Like the economy. Or at times, our company or our team.

This plane was a lab and we were the rats. How do we respond when we are stuck, vulnerable, nervous, and have no positional power?

Unfortunately there was nothing to observe. What I needed was a stimulus. Something to bring people’s reactions to the surface. Something like … a screaming baby.

The baby in the seat behind me generously accommodated. He let out a sharp cry, followed by waves of wailing. His mother tried to soothe him — shushing, gently tapping on his back — but the screeching only got louder.

Let the games begin.

Sitting across the aisle from the mother was a woman, probably in her 60’s who became increasingly annoyed. She glared. Sighed loudly. And finally, in a “whisper” to her seatmate that was clearly meant to be heard said, “Can’t that woman control her baby?” Her seatmate smiled awkwardly without looking up from her magazine.

“I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong.” The man sitting next to me who had been staring out the window now turned to face me. “It’s a problem with the wheels. They just let the gear down and we’re way higher than 1,000 feet. Must be a problem with the landing gear.” He proceeded to talk to me about the mechanics of an airplane and what would happen in a crash landing with inoperative wheels.

I turned to look down the aisle just in time to see one woman cry out, say something about the baby, and beat her magazine on the back of the seat in front of her. Unfortunately for the man sitting there, she hit him on the head. When he turned in utter surprise, she started babbling out an apology. I kid you not.

There were, of course, many others — most people on the plane — who didn’t have any observable reaction.

Then the woman sitting next to the mother offered to hold the baby for a few moments, to provide the mother a little relief. I turned in time to see the mother smile — it didn’t appear that they knew each other — pass the baby, thank her profusely, and shut her eyes. The baby continued to cry, but everyone else settled down a bit.

In a few short minutes I’d observed many of the common reactions to frustration during stress. While each of the responses might be psychologically useful, one came out the clear winner. What would life be like if more of us offered to hold the baby?

Someone on your team is consistently unprepared at meetings. You’re not the leader so you can’t declare it unacceptable. What do you do? You could complain to others or roll your eyes or try to ignore it. Or you could hold the baby: partner with him on a project, offer to prepare with him, or share ideas before the next meeting.

One of your colleagues is overworked, stressed, seemingly unproductive, and making your team look bad. On top of that, she’s constantly complaining about how much harder her job is than yours. Annoying right? You’d be justified in gossiping about her or simply letting her fail. But what if you offered to help? Maybe even stayed late one night working with her?

Your company comes out with a new technology initiative that seems to make everyone’s lives more complicated. Yet they say it’s necessary. It’s so easy to complain about it. Or to nod along with others when they complain about it. But what if you learned enough about it to help the people who were struggling with it?

In situations in which we may have no positional authority — we’re not the leader, we don’t have all the information, we can’t make the decisions, we aren’t in control — we still have power: the power to influence our own experience and, sometimes, the experiences of others. Holding the baby gives us something useful to do. It makes us and others feel good. It might even help solve the problem. What’s important is to remember that it’s always a choice.

35 minutes after his first announcement, the Captain told us we had been cleared to land. I looked out the window and saw the flashing lights of ambulances and fire trucks lining the runway. The man next to me, having already described all the possible ways we might die, gave me a see, I told you it was bad look. I tightened my seat belt.

The wheels touched the ground. Nobody moved. Would the plane stop? The engines roared and the plane slowed. Everyone burst into applause. We had landed gently and easily.

Our saga, and my experiment, was over.

Then the airline representative explained the procedures for getting rebooked on another flight, and people started jockeying for a place on line and speaking loudly on cell phones to their travel agents. One woman started to plead for a spot on the next flight. People around her started to roll their eyes.

Let the games begin.