I thought roller coasters were supposed to be fun... - ZM Coach

In response to my recent piece about work being like a spinning merry-go-round, a former neighbor and friend pointed out that another all-too-familiar metaphor for work these days is the roller coaster. He’s in the oil and gas industry, where ongoing uncertainty in the geopolitical sphere has made for a lot of ups and downs lately. It’s exhausting. I see the same with my clients and friends in the biotech world, where uncertainty leads to a constant back-and-forth between exuberant optimism and white knuckled fear when clinical trials fail to yield the desired results. These are just two examples. In fact, in all kinds of industries, uncertainty and disruption have become the norm.

Having just returned from a few days off in Florida where we rode a few really cool coasters, it seemed fitting to pick up that theme today. 

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with roller coasters.  I love the exhilaration of them, and also the opportunity to bond with my teenager and my kid-at-heart husband as we bravely step into the ride, scream our heads off (okay, that’s just me) and then celebrate with high-fives and exaggerated silly staggering. But, for me, the experience of the coasters themselves is often a mixed bag of thrill, discomfort, excitement and fear. 

I suspect this is also how most people experience the metaphorical roller coasters they face at work. There’s the giddy anticipation as our career clicks up the track, when a new project or new opportunity comes along. The rush of the wind in our face as we hit our stride, tackling a whirlwind of activities with a sense of liveliness and inspiration. The gut-wrenching ups and downs. The teeth-gritting periods of being thrown about as we spin through the twists and turns that work sends our way. Finally, the relief, as we emerge having met the challenge, sometimes feeling triumphant, and other times, weary and beaten.

When you’re in the middle of the ride, those gut-wrenching ups and downs, and teeth-gritting twists and turns can take a real toll – particularly if they leave you feeling worried about your job. Whether the roller coaster is a particular project, or your experience of the company’s well-being or even the dynamics of the market or industry as a whole, when you’re living in uncertainty, unsure of whether you will have a job, life is very stressful.

In a study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, authors, Eva Selenko, Anne Makikangas, Christopher B. Stride point to a shift in identity that people experience when they feel insecure about their work, noting that, “pervasive job insecurity can have harmful effects on people’s well-being as well as their work performance.” They suggest that one’s identity as an “employed person” is at the heart of the problem. When people start to imagine that they might lose that identity, their self-esteem suffers and they experience high levels of stress – in some cases, even higher than people feel when they are actually unemployed.

I see job insecurity having a number of other damaging effects. People who feel insecure about their jobs tend to overwork and to hold back on steps they could take to shift their situation. When someone is in fear of losing their job, they go into survival mode. They’re less likely to speak up for themselves and to set boundaries around their work. As a result, they grind away, putting in long hours, putting up with poor treatment and unrealistic expectations. They skip vacations, or work through them. They work late. They skip meals and workouts and time with friends. After a while, that takes a real toll. Their health begins to suffer from the constant stress, and from not taking care of themselves. Their relationships suffer from lack of attention, as they disappear back to the office, or into their laptops or their phones. They may withdraw from connection, or snap at their loved ones, taking out their work stress on the people around them at home. The constant insecurity about their jobs can make it difficult to move forward in other areas, too, as money worries hold them back from investing in themselves and their careers, taking vacations, getting the help they need.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Believe it or not, there is a strategy for riding roller coasters so that they’re fun. My son’s experience of roller coasters changed entirely when a pilot friend taught him how to hold his body to account for the g-forces. Overnight he went from disliking and avoiding them, to clamoring for bigger and more daring rides. The same can be true for anyone wanting to have a better experience at work. There are strategies that can help shift your experience, so you have more of the thrill and fun of it, and less of the nail-biting insecurity and anxiety.

Here are a few of those strategies, that you can apply to your own situation:

The first is to know your purpose. When you have built an identity that goes beyond any particular job, you can weather any changes that may come along. When you know what you stand for and what you want to accomplish in the world, you can see any given job as just one potential avenue for carrying out that purpose. From that point of view, there’s less pressure to have to stay in THAT particular role.

The second is to be aware of the power dynamics in your relationships – with your organization overall, and with your colleagues. Historically, workers have had relatively little power compared with their companies, and as a result, most people hold a mindset that puts them in a one-down position relative to their employers. The reality is that the balance of power at work has shifted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more employees are currently quitting than are being laid off.  Layoff and discharge rates were around 1.2% from Dec. 2018 – Dec. 2019, while employee quit rates were around 2.4% during that same period. In other words, employees themselves are making the choice to leave, much more than being told they have to. In many industries there is a shortage of talent. What that means is that employees have far more power than they may realize.

Standing in your power means being aware of these dynamics in your own industry, as it relates to your role and your expertise. When you know exactly where you stand, it can be easier to ask for what you want, to make the role work for you – whether that’s a shift in responsibilities, or work hours, or reporting structures. When working with clients who are facing some kind of job insecurity, or dissatisfaction, I ask them to think about, “what do you have to lose?” They usually discover that they have a lot more freedom than they realized. Once they see the relative power that they hold, then our work shifts to the tactical: what to ask for, and who they’ll ask. We look at how to position their requests so they are most likely to be successful, and we also make sure they have a solid fall-back position if they aren’t.

The third strategy also has to do owning your power — in this case your internal power — the power of your thoughts to create your experience. There are common thought-patterns that accompany periods of uncertainty. These thought-patterns have the goal of keeping us safe by identifying potential dangers – playing out worst-case scenarios and imagining all of the ways that something could go wrong, so that we’re ready. These are the 2 a.m. worry-fests that keep us up at night. The chest-tightening grumble-fests that fill our daily commutes as we play out conflicts with the boss or our colleagues, picturing confrontations and how we might respond to them.

Unfortunately, the downside is that these thoughts also tend to generate feelings of anxiety, worry, frustration and fear. When you can hone your self-awareness, your emotional intelligence, to the point where you are able to observe your thoughts and see how they are generating feelings, you can step away from them, rather than getting sucked into and swept away by the full emotional experience. You can learn to tap into your intuitive sense of the risks to mitigate, without giving into fear. With your thoughts and feelings available as a resource, you can make informed choices about how to move forward.

All three of these strategies put you in the driver’s seat, so that you are no longer thrown about by the ups-and-downs and twists-and-turns of uncertainty at work. They sound simple – and they are – but implementing them isn’t always easy.  If you’d like some help putting these into practice in your own life, let’s talk.  We’ll get on a call for about 45 minutes and look at your career situation – the ups and downs of it – and map out a game plan that will put you in a better position to enjoy the ride. 

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