Join the Dance

Life is unpredictable. Haven’t you noticed?

Just when things look like they’re finally settling down, just when you’re getting a handle on it…BAM! The whole thing up and changes again. Hey, No Fair! you scream and shout. At least five times a day, I hear some version of this in my office. And I am very sympathetic to it. In the modern workplace, things are changing all the time, and with ever increasing speed and scale. Part of what makes change so stressful for most of us is that it often feels like decisions are being made which directly impact our lives without our input or consent. As a result, we can feel small, vulnerable, powerless.

A client told me recently of an experience he’d had at his company. A strategic board meeting which he had regularly attended, disappeared from his calendar. Something changed (though he didn’t know what), and his participation was longer required. In the moment, he felt a sharp sting of rejection: “Straight away, it was as if I was twelve years old again and not getting picked for basketball.” This was quickly followed by the panicky train of thought: “Who decided this? What changed? Have I done something wrong?” Most people can relate to these painful feelings of exclusion. The locus of control is over there. Somebody is screwing around with my life, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it!

This is the human condition: UNCERTAINTY. Nobody knows what is going to happen on Monday morning. Constant changes in the workplace occur as people react to changing conditions on the ground and in the market. To avoid feelings of bitterness or disempowerment, it’s essential that we develop our own tools to manage this change, especially when those changes are unwelcome. Here’s what I suggest:

Keep dancing
Somebody switched up the music on you, now what? Do you leave the dance floor in a huff, or do you try to pick out the new rhythm and keep moving? It’s tempting to leave and sulk, but more useful if we can stick around and remain curious. Stay interested, and maybe you can learn some new steps. This requires that we don’t view change as a personal attack or direct threat to our existence. (Few of us are that important.) Rather, a shift has occurred somewhere in the universe which may directly or indirectly impact your world, and it’s your job to find out what it is and see what you can learn from it. Think of it as a workout for your adaptive muscles. I find a useful mantra is: I am here to learn. It’s so much easier to learn something new if we remain open, loose, curious…and stay on the dance floor.

Start something new
If your situation changes due to reasons beyond your control, bitching and moaning about it (while it feels good in the moment) is rarely a useful strategy. One of the best ways to regain a sense of control is to start something new. People become depressed and cynical when they feel that what they do no longer matters. Well, if it doesn’t, then create something meaningful. Launch a new project and back yourself to lead it. Start a lunchtime walking group. Volunteer. Mentor someone. Anything that gives you back a sense of power and agency. A useful mantra is: I create my own reality. This is not to say that “I must ignore this new reality,” but rather “I am in charge of my life even when I am not in control.” It’s about personal responsibility. If you feel like the victim of change, become the change instead. Get busy on something that fires you up.

Stewardship of the whole
Our habit generally is to focus on what’s going wrong around us, instead of what’s going right.

In her excellent article on “Leadership from Below,” author Miki Kashtan talks about becoming an agent of change – from the bottom up. She urges people who feel powerless and frustrated to step back and consider the big picture. Most of us are fairly blinkered in terms of what we can see. Our desk, our job, our main task is but one vital cog in a large and every-changing ecosystem. Let’s say recent changes within your organization left you feeling marginalized or scrambling to keep up. How will those changes work for your team, department, or company – in the long-term? What is the macro view here? Are these changes aligned with your own interests, the ultimate mission, your values? If so, these changes may not be all bad news.

You’ve got to go through it
When you’re staring down unwanted or unwelcome change, our natural inclination is to avoid it at all costs. But if I’ve learned anything as a coach (and now as a parent), it’s that it is always easier to go through it than try to avoid change altogether. Right now, my son’s favorite book is “Going on a Bear Hunt.” A family of 5 goes in search of a bear’s cave. At every juncture, they are stymied in this pursuit: by a river, a muddy swamp, a sudden storm, a dark forest. Their frustration is summed up in this one repeating sentence: “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it.” This book should be required reading in business school.

Change is life. And life is change. We’ve got to go through it.

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