How to Work Amid Chaos and Constant Change

May 6, 2014
10 Min Read

Four of our workplace experts have weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you three points of view. For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

A reader asked us: “I work for a company that has had one steady constant -- change. How do you ensure you continue to get work done and are as efficient as possible when your team mates, responsibilities, and structure are constantly in flux?”

Anita Bruzzese says:

I’m sure you’ve heard change is inevitable, and you’ve got to learn to be more flexible, blah, blah, blah. But the truth is, change is damn hard and to go through it constantly cannot be a barrel of laughs.

When you’re faced with constant change, you need to ensure that you’re communicating your processes and goals with new teammates and bosses to make sure you’re on the same page.  Do you have a company intranet or cloud-based system so that you can remain up-to-date with what’s going on and share your latest tasks or news? If not, this might be a great time to suggest such a tool (and show yourself to be someone who embraces change and doesn’t fight it.)

To ensure you’re maximizing your time, try using a timing app that can measure if you’re being efficient with projects that matter the most – or if the stress of constant change has you chatting with buddies on Facebook more than you should. Think about quick fixes like having an automatic email response ready to go for those things that haven’t changed so you can devote more attention to learning new structures or responsibilities.

It’s also important during this time that you don’t isolate yourself, but reach out to new teammates to grab a coffee or lunch. Even if they’re only around for a short time, gathering new contacts is always a smart move and a good investment in your career – and can help you view change as a positive.

Alison Green says:

It helps to set up your expectations correctly in advance. Part of what usually makes constant change so stressful is that you’re planning for one thing but then suddenly a different thing is happening, and you’re struggling to adjust. So instead, plan for change to happen – assume that things will change, expect it, and position your mind accordingly. For instance, when planning projects, factor into the schedule (and your own thinking) that the timeline may change, different people may become involved, and even the desired outcomes themselves may shift. You might, for example, include additional time for sign-offs and – knowing that details might change -- incorporate additional times to check in with decision-makers about the project. In other words, be realistic about the environment you’re working in and don’t expect stability when you’re working in chaos.

At the same time, don’t allow changes to “just happen”; make sure that you’re distinguishing between distractions and true deliberate changes in direction that warrant adjusting priorities and ways of operating.

But ultimately, it’s important to ask yourself whether this is an environment you want to work in. Some people thrive in this type of atmosphere, while others hate it. If you’ll never be comfortable working like this and you’re not in a position to change the environment, it might be worth recognizing that this role isn’t an ideal fit for you.

Alexandra Levit says:

You sound like the type of person who likes to be buttoned up and prepared, so this is, no doubt, a frustrating situation. In your ideal world, the company's vision and strategy would be clear and consistent so that you and your teammates could execute on them effectively. Unfortunately, the business world is more turbulent than ever, and employees today are often measured not by their results, but by their ability to be nimble in the face of constant change.

It's critical, therefore, not to let any negativity show. No matter how often the higher-ups throw all of the pieces of the organization up in the air, your attitude should be "I will make it work." Focus on how your role du jour can benefit your long term career aspirations and acquire as many new skills as you can before things shift again. In terms of productivity, the reality is that you can't be 100% efficient when your business is a moving target. Once you accept this, you can make the best of the situation. The good news is, those who are concerned about these matters are always far more productive than those who aren't, so you are going to come out ahead in this respect.

A few years ago, I wrote about how to cope with uncertainty in general. Among my suggestions back then:

A few years ago, I wrote about how to cope with uncertainty in general. Among my suggestions back then:

Put things that you can’t change out of your mind

There is no use in obsessing over something you have no control over whatsoever, like whether your company is going to do another re-organization or your pet project is going to be canceled because the business is moving in a different direction.

Take action to prevent bad outcomes you do have some control over

If you’re worried that your boss is unhappy with your performance amidst the recent changes, schedule a meeting with her to discuss the issues point-blank. Once you have done everything you can, let the anxiety go.

Reduce your stress level

Unpredictability is hard on the body, so take time out of your day to exercise, meditate, and do things you enjoy. Staying active will help to center yourself when everything around you is frenetic.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

When change is a steady constant, and life seems chaotic or ambiguous, you have to deliberately guide where you direct your attention.

On one extreme side of the spectrum, you are scatter-brained. You’re here, you’re there, you’re stop, you’re go. This happens when you allow your environment (other people, your circumstances, your inbox) to take complete control. You are in reactive mode, so you try to multitask. You end up busy, often without accomplishing much. This frazzled state is not conducive to good relationships and high performance.

But you don’t want to overcorrect and wind up on the other side either—where you work with your blinders on. If you do that, you miss opportunities to notice what is going on around you, so you undermine your ability to prepare and adapt. You shut others out, fail to think innovatively, and miss unexpected opportunities.

Instead, do a little bit of both. Decide on one priority. Practice mindfulness, be present and in the moment, and give your sustained attention and focus to that one item for a specified period of time (e.g., twenty minutes). Then, switch over to open awareness. Lose your narrow-minded focus and observe and perceive. As you make such mode-switching a habit, you’ll find you get better at directing your attention appropriately over time, improving your productivity and effectiveness.

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