Change is confusing and makes us anxious. It is also ubiquitous. The world of work has been transformed by rapid and disruptive technological development, issues of equality and race, and political upheavals such as Brexit. And then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which has only accelerated change and deepened uncertainty.
Even if such changes are positive, they can feel overwhelming. Suddenly people are forced to make cognitive and behavioural adjustments to entrenched habits and ways of thinking, and are forced out of their comfort zone.
And change, of course, always involves loss. Leaving one’s area of expertise, saying goodbye to trusted colleagues and losing the admiration of clients are just some of the losses for individuals. Transitioning to a new role can also leave one feeling inadequate, isolated and fearful of not being up to the job.
One example comes from a solicitor in her thirties who sought my help after moving from London to another city to be close to her family. She was recruited by a firm that wished to expand its services in her area of law. When she began the job, she was shocked to discover her new colleagues had little interest in her expertise and the firm’s management offered inadequate resources. Her confidence plummeted to the extent she could no longer think clearly.
“It felt as if I had gone from being a respected player to being a curiosity on the sidelines,” she explains. “Everyone was nice, but rarely sought my opinion nor listened if I volunteered it. I had the ‘that’s not the way we do things round here’ response more than once.”
To counter this, we are exploring how she might assert her role and express her concerns and needs to the firm more forcefully.
For people switching employers, having to work from home during the pandemic has magnified such difficulties. And even for those staying put, I have clients who have felt disorientated because changes in personnel and leadership occurred “online”. They only felt the impact of these changes when they returned to the office.
Because of the Great Resignation and global staff shortages, people are being asked to take positions for which they lack training or experience. Consequently they can suffer extreme imposter syndrome, blaming themselves for failings when in fact their organisation is setting unrealistic expectations and/or not providing adequate resources.
Although many managers believe in maximising staff autonomy, for those struggling in changed roles this can mean being left to fend for themselves. New staff in particular are sometimes short changed in necessary instruction and guidance. Supporting such employees as their manager requires asking questions and having regular conversations — and not just when things go wrong.
Even when transitions are positive, such as a promotion, individuals can suffer raised anxiety as they leave behind their areas of expertise and discover that what is required is more to do with managing relationships. Not only had their technical skills served them professionally, often the same traits had helped them manage their emotional lives.
This was the case for a 36-year-old man who came to me for work psychotherapy following a depressive breakdown.
He had been promoted to chief marketing officer by his employer, which required more strategic thinking. His chief executive, who was preoccupied by other objectives, assumed my client would know what was required. Adding to his stress, he also had to perform his old role as well for an initial period.
This created a mental conflict between having to think strategically and executing operational tasks.
“I felt I was moving backwards and consumed with things not going right. The only way that I was getting any break was in drinking and trying to forget things. Your chest is tight and you want to cry, sometimes you do cry, and feel you’re oversensitive to everything,” he says.
During our sessions he told me that during childhood he found learning had helped him overcome feelings of inadequacy, ease his feelings of isolation and become socially confident.
He took this strategy into his career, studying what was necessary and becoming expert. As a result he prided himself on accepting fresh challenges. But when faced with the reality that he could not possibly absorb all that was required for his new job, he panicked.
“That caused me to have more doubts, to drink more, become less focused and then spiral downwards until a point where I didn’t know how to get out of it.”
Instead, he had to learn to ask others for help, and accept that the strategy that had served him well in the past was now obstructing his ability to adapt.
It was difficult because when stressed or anxious one is likely to double-down on what is familiar and comfortable, rather than recognise what needs to change. Being confused and overwhelmed are triggers to stop and think, “hang on, what’s going on?”
As my client says: “The crazy thing is I’ve been on management courses [where] you learn at a superficial level, but then there are things inside you which short-circuit the right thing to do and you don’t do it. This is where our conversations helped.”
Recognising the opportunity for new possibilities and personal development in times of uncertainty can motivate individuals to face change. Seeking help, finding the courage to experiment and allowing for failures are crucial. Most difficult is tolerating the uncomfortable feelings that will arise.
This era of rapid and profound change puts a tremendous onus on business leaders. Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and managing principal of New York’s Boswell Group, a consultancy that advises leaders, says that as change brings greater complexity the leader’s essential role is the ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, rather than offering certainty and clarity that is quickly exposed as false.
“Never has there been a greater need for humility on the part of leaders — which is the opposite of arrogance and certainty,” he says.
“The leaders who are thriving are seeing this as a time that is really interesting — where their intellectual curiosity comes to the fore without feeling the need to fully understand and taking some pleasure in adapting to these rapidly changing circumstances.”