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Working Scared.

There are steps you can take to build peace of mind at work, even if things around you are full of change (and aren’t they always?)

We live and work in a time of constant change. Expecting the environment around us to stabilize and offer us some peace of mind seems like a lost cause.

Rather, what we can do is take stock of where we are, gather data that help us make informed choices, and take responsibility for the peace of mind we want.

I spent several years interviewing professionals who had been laid off around 2008 as part of my doctoral work. Since then, I spent much of my time with clients facing major transitions at work. There are a few themes see across all my research and client work, ideas that cross industries, ranks, life stage…and perhaps the most poignant and powerful one is FEAR.

“Everyone is working scared,” a client said to me recently. He was consulting after a layoff, and was carefully looking for full time work. “I’m looking for something steady, but I can’t just go anywhere. The most important thing is that I can stop looking over my shoulder…I can’t accept that work won’t feel safe anymore.”

I’ve known the feeling of walking into an annual review, and thinking, I’m not sure if I’m about to be promoted or to be fired. That sounds unreasonable, I know. But here’s what’s even more unreasonable: When I confided this to friends, they admitted to experiencing the same thing!

Every week, I talk to accomplished, experienced, and deeply capable professionals who feel fear at work. Is my status secure? Does this company still need someone like me? Am I measuring up? Is someone unhappy with my performance and just not telling me?

What can we do about this?

  • Get curious about your own brain. Recent development in neuroscience and its relevance at work help us understand how our own internal negativity bias can work against us to catastrophize and remember only the things that go wrong. Once we know this, we can start to distinguish between our brain’s instinct to protect us from perceived threats and any real threats we face at work. It’s worth our effort to spend time on problems that are really ours to solve.

  • Ask for what you need. As in much of our lives, in the workplace we aren’t taught to ask for what we need. We all fundamentally want to know where we stand. The best way to find out is to have frequent, candid conversations with your manager about how things are going (specifically), what you’re doing that you should keep doing, and where you need to make adjustments. And, go beyond your manager. Ask for feedback from a variety of people who have line of sight into your performance, skills, attitude, etc.

  • Build your professional stamina, regardless of the environment. There are actionable steps you can take to assess your skills, close gaps with self-directed or other training, firm up your key learning opportunities, and position yourself for movement in one of many professional directions. It takes a plan, and some effort and a willingness to take responsibility for your own sense of safety in a chaotic work context. My recommendation? Invest in this work when the going is good - so that you’re more prepared if and when things change.

A trusted group of work colleagues, a mentor, a coach and a strong manager can all be resources to help you create some of the professional stamina you want. Need some inspiration? Let’s talk!


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