Career Maven

Dealing with Uncertainty at Work

The weird thing about work is it’s both a huge source of (potential) satisfaction and somewhere we can lack certainty and control.

We’re focused on being successful while there are so many influential factors we don’t have control over.

We don’t always have a say in who is in our team.

We don’t always have a say in the clients or projects we work on.

We don’t influence what strategic decisions are made or when those decisions are announced.

Sometimes it can be as simple as what hours we work or how we structure our workday that someone else decides for us.

All of that creates a highly uncertain space that we somehow have to navigate.

If we want work to feel satisfying, fulfilling, creative and ultimately like somewhere we’re fulfilling our potential, we need to learn to thrive within the uncertainty.

The obvious advice here is to focus on what you can control but that feels too vague to be helpful. And it’s a little invalidating of what you’re experiencing. So let’s start there.

Dealing with uncertainty at work can be stressful and detract from satisfaction. With so much outside of our control in our careers it's important to be able to manage the chaos effectively so we can be successful.

Validate your own experience.

When you’re feeling out of control, overwhelmed or stressed by the uncertainty, our response is often denial.

We almost gaslight ourselves by wishing we were an unflappable, calm in crisis type of person.

We make ourselves wrong for being affected by whatever is going wrong.

Then two things happen, we attempt to bury how we really feel and we erode our already depleting resilience by being self critical.

Outcome: the voices inside our head increase and our ability to cope decreases.

It’s also really difficult to identify what you need at that moment when you’re not being honest about what’s going on for you.

The temptation in that moment is to seek external validation. To ask fishing questions in the hope someone will say something that gives you permission to feel how you’re feeling.

I’m sure you can already see the issues with that approach. What happens when you don’t get the response you want? 

If you ask a question or approach a conversation wanting it to go a certain way, you already know your answer. That’s the only validation you need.

Learn your early warning signals.

One of the most helpful things I’ve ever learnt for dealing with stress and uncertainty, is figuring out what my early warning signals are.

What behaviour or thoughts or sensations in my body tell me that things are starting to go sideways.

They give me a chance to adjust before things get too crazy.

When we’re in the thick of it, it can be really hard to step back and get perspective. Being able to recognise the early warning signals helps you be proactive before it gets harder to change course.

This is a bit of a weird one but an early warning sign for me is a kind of manic upbeat energy. In my day job, I facilitate a lot of meetings. In those meetings, if I bring a kind of forced, hyper, slightly over the top energy, that’s a sign I’m feeling some pressure.

I started to figure out these early warning signals by working backwards from the full red alert moments. I would think about a time when I was fully really spun out, really overwhelmed and reflect on what came before. What was the behaviour, the feelings that came before reaching that place?

The cool, and maybe frustrating, thing is this is a continuous exploration of who you are and how you react. First there’s getting to recognise your patterns now and then as your awareness builds and you start playing with other suggestions in this blog, you’ll build new patterns which you’ll need to be familiar with.

Here are some possible signals that uncertainty is impacting your ability to execute:

  • Telling stories, rumination, brain going crazy
  • Jumping all over the place, trying to do everything at once, struggling to focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed, possibly extra sensitive or emotional
  • Wanting to run away, avoid work, procrastination, shutting down
  • Being snappy, irritated, short with colleagues

Strategies to navigate uncertainty.

Awareness and validation are great but you still don’t want to stay stuck in that funky energy. Here are my favourite ideas for setting yourself up to thrive amongst the chaos:

Is your side of the street clean? 

My friend and incredible relationship coach Stephanie Churma taught me this one. It’s her way of conceptualising personal responsibility.

I use this as a check in. Is my behaviour what I want it to be? Am I holding someone else to a higher standard than I’m holding myself? How can I give what I want to myself instead of seeking it externally? Have I done everything I can in this situation?

The biggest thing we have control over is always ourselves and our actions. So yes, we have eventually arrived at focusing on what you can control.

Focusing on what you can control is a reminder that you can’t control everything. That doesn’t feel great.

What I like about asking it this way, is my side of the street clean, is it’s an integrity check in rather than a reaction to the lack of control.

It’s a valid question whether things are crazy or not so it doesn’t carry the same baggage.

Fact check your thoughts.

Ask yourself what is an irrefutable fact? An irrefutable fact is something everyone will agree on. Facts have no inherent emotion, they simply are.

Most of our thoughts are the narrative we add to the facts to help make sense of them.

And that narrative, that interpretation is where the emotion sneaks in.

Coming back to facts is grounding. It’s a really powerful way of interrupting and interrogating the thoughts spinning around in your head.

And if we want to talk about the things we CAN control, our thoughts, the story we’re telling ourselves is right up there.

Check in with your cycle.

My caveat to having control over your thoughts (and I’m sure there are others) is hormones.

The world can be ending when I’m on my period and three days later everything is sunshine and rainbows again. Literally the only change is my hormones have picked up and so has my energy level. 

After my last menstrual phase, I set the intention to be more aware of how my cycle is contributing to my overwhelm. In some ways I’m very in tune with the impact of my hormones but this is my commitment to developing a new layer of understanding. It’s all about building self awareness!

Keep an eye on your habits and routines.

When things are feeling stressy, we all know how easy it is to let the supportive habits drop. 

The out of control feelings can be super depleting and leave you feeling like you don’t have the energy to cook or workout or tidy the house.

If things are crazy, ask yourself what feels supportive right now. Maybe your current routine isn’t realistic or isn’t giving you what you need. Make the adjustments so your habits are working for you rather than adding to your stress.

Recently I’ve added two things to my routines which I’m finding super supportive:

  1. Walking to work! Those 35 minutes I spend outside are so grounding. Even if I’ve woken up with my head spinning, by the time I get to the office I’m feeling centred. That makes a huge difference in my ability to navigate whatever the day throws at me.
  2. Planning for the week instead of day by day. Instead of trying to cram everything into one day, I can mentally park tasks knowing I’m going to focus on them later. This frees up mental space and means I’m way less frantic trying to do too much on any given day.

Yes really, sometimes we need to dial up the support structures and routines to navigate particularly full on moments. It’s never about finding the one routine to end all routines. It’s about continually checking in and making sure you’re giving yourself what you need.

Did you find this post helpful? Come share you learned on the discussion thread in the Independent Mavenhood Facebook group. I would love to hear from you!

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