Everyone who works goes through a period of high stress. Maybe it’s a project that’s overdue and over budget. A change in leadership that brings new rules and values. A change in the market that impacts the company negatively. How a person reacts and adapts to this stress is one of the most telling methods of identifying rising leaders and individuals who are going to be left out in the cold.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” -CG Jung
We start working with an idea of how we bring value to a job. We’ve developed this sense as students and before that, as members of a family. The introvert who speaks only when they have something well thought out to say. The diplomat who keeps family tensions at bay. The brash one who likes to keep people unsettled.
In our first jobs, we’re expected to be helpful – detail-oriented, friendly, responsive. As we grow in our careers, the expectations mature – we should be more independent, proactive and proficient in technical skill sets. If we’re doing well, the value we bring is reinforced through job offers, performance reviews and on the job recognition. By the time we reach mid-career, these traits have hardened into set of beliefs located so deep down that we aren’t aware they exist. It’s just the right way to do a job. They’ve become our values.
These are good – they keep us safe (e.g. employed) and relevant (e.g. recognized) and they allow us to contribute in our unique way to our work society. We begin coaching others on how to be successful and manage our own teams based on these values.
But. You knew there was going to be a ‘but’.
These beliefs can turn against us. Psychologists tell us that when we’re under stress, we revert to our “dominant” traits. In business, that means we go back to, and in fact over-rotate to, the traits that made us successful in the first place. It’s a human reaction to revert to what makes us feel safe. Ironically, this natural reaction may just be our undoing.
“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” – Benjamin Franklin.
A few years ago, Ben was a rising star in Dublin. His manager spoke highly of him and his clients loved working with him. He was quick, funny and very good at his job. He was offered a short-term assignment in our new Australian office in a different department and a friend of mine became his manager.
Very shortly after the assignment began, my friend called and asked me to confirm if Ben was actually any good. Ben had been making extremely simple mistakes; e.g. not taking into account time zone differences when he set up meetings and turning in his assignments late or incomplete. This stunned me – this was not the Ben I knew.
I realized that Ben was under stress. Everything was new – the office, the culture, and the manager. It was a more strategic role than Ben was used to and the volume of work in a start-up environment far exceeded what he had been used to. My friend was not the strongest manager, he was very nice but not very detailed and Ben was flailing without the direction he normally had.
Ben failed. Yes, there were environmental reasons that kept him off balance, but instead of taking a moment to reflect on what he could do differently, he doubled down on what he knew. He got very detailed, which slowed him down. He worked very late hours but didn’t ask for help and ended up burning himself out. He tried to develop relationships through his humor, but in a highly volatile and fast-paced environment, his genuine charm came across as insincere. When he returned to Europe, his star had faded and he shortly left the company.
It’s a story I’ve seen repeated many times in my career. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “virtuous circle” where competency and confidence feed each other. This story is representative of what I call the “vicious circle” – where the more confidence you lose, the less competent you become, which decreases your confidence and so forth.
It’s very hard to recognize when you’re in the vicious circle. Sometimes people will begin asking for advice, but they can’t or don’t want to hear that the path they’re on is crumbling under their feet. That the very traits that made them successful are leading them to failure. It becomes someone else’s fault – the manager who can’t help, the team who won’t perform, the leaders who are unable to lead. They become bitter, or sad or mad. In some cases, they squeak by and emerge a bruised in spirit, but still not fully aware of the damage to their professional reputation.
It doesn’t have to be this way but, as we know, change is hard. And no one else can do it for you. It starts with self-awareness. Write down (not just think about it) what has made you successful to this point. No one else is going to read this so be honest with yourself. If you truly don’t know, think back on your job interviews, your performance reviews or the things that people have said “thank you” for.
Now think about your current situation and what is being asked of you. Let go of any frustration or sense of unfairness you may be holding on to. The harsh truth is that no one cares that the situation may be hard or unfair. If you’re unwilling or unable to walk away, then all that’s left is to change yourself. So think about the qualities that your current situation is calling for and then assess your comfort with these qualities. Do you fear making decisions without your manager’s input? Are you afraid of confronting others who may be negatively impacting your work? Are you nervous about making decisions without all the information you typically have?
Fear is what binds us in the vicious circle. It takes courage to admit that we don’t have everything we need to succeed. But doing so is the first step to breaking the pattern.
Asking for help in these situations without knowing exactly what you need help with isn’t the smart thing to do. It’s placing your problem on someone else’s shoulder and they probably won’t accept it. However, getting specific with yourself – what you do well and what you don’t – is a long step towards adapting to your new environment. It gives you back some agency and power and you no longer feel like you’re spiraling down.
Now when you ask for guidance, feedback and support, you’re approaching other people with specificity, confidence and humility. There may be companies where even in this situation, no one will step forward to lend a hand. But more often than not, they will. You haven’t made your problem someone else’s, you’ve taken control of your own performance and are taking steps to improve. Most people will want to help. It’s still up to you to take their help. It’s still up to you to try to do things differently – to take a risk, to allow yourself to feel uncomfortable, to be okay with stumbling as you try something new.
However, if you stick with it, you’ll realize something remarkable about yourself. You’re capable of growth and adaptation. You can take a hit and rise up and keep going. And more than succeeding or failing in a particular role, you’ll know that you don’t have to be afraid. That if this situation happened again, and it will because that is the world we work in, you’ll have the rock hard certainty that you know that you can survive, and even thrive.
If you’re wondering what happened to Ben, he moved on to a new company and having learned from a painful lesson, he is doing very well at a job he truly enjoys.