“The very nature of interactions is bound to make it unpredictable.”- Carl von Clausewitz
Do you come to work with the expectation that everything will run smoothly?
I recently had a client who engaged my services to help him overcome a behavioural change issue that was impacting he’s ability to function affectively when confronted with unpredictability in the workplace.
When everything on the horizon was calm and he saw a clear linear path from A to B he’s performance was outstanding. However, when there was the slightest disruption he found himself challenged to stay in control of himself and things around him.
The reality is we will never have complete control.
Conditions are constantly changing so the past does not completely predict the present or the future.
We develop unrealistic expectations about our world.
We all want to feel in command and on top of our game, but unplanned situations can sometimes make us feel like a helpless victim. This uncertainty can cause us stress, anxiety and self-doubt.
So what can we do in those times of uncertainty to stay in control?
Chaos in the workplace
Work, by its very nature, is unpredictable. It can be chaotic and full of surprises.
Such chaos can affect us directly and personally. We go to work expecting one thing, and more often than not we end up getting something different.
For example we may accept a new job with all its promise and challenge. Then when we get there, we find that the manager who hired us is leaving for an opportunity elsewhere. We find ourselves with a new boss and a different challenge altogether.
Similarly, we have convinced our boss to invest in a new project. We build a team and create momentum. Then we find out midstream the budget has been cut and we need to release our newly hired staff.
Such chaos can seem to put our routines, financial security, sense of accomplishment, and much more into question.
This kind of predictable unpredictability happens every day around the world.
And yet we somehow end up relating to these common situations as threats, disasters, and lose our sense of confidence.
We so much want our world to run smoothly without uncertainties or surprises.
The reality is there is no solution to work’s inherent chaos and unpredictability. Work by its very nature will always be uncertain.
So what can we do to relieve the distress associated with these events?
A little bit of ancient Chinese wisdom
Inspiration and guidance can be found from the ancient Chinese text of Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”.
Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher credited with writing ‘The Art of War’.
This influential book was written more than two thousand years ago. It focused on military strategy how to engage in conflict and be successful in battle.
In chapter 5 he writes:
“When in battle,
Use the orthodox to engage,
Use the extraordinary to attain victory.”
Sun Tzu’s use of the orthodox and the extraordinary can be applied to our modern day experiences at work. It teaches us the basic skills for functioning within this environment.
The orthodox can be found in our daily procedures such as business plans, forecasts, staff meetings and monthly reports we typically engage in on a regular basis.
However according to Sun Tzu, we can never succeed if we rely solely on these things. Only by remaining alert and open to engaging with the extraordinary, the unpredictable events, can we truly succeed in life.
If we were to adapt Sun Tzu’s idea and make it more relevant to the workplace we might choose a slightly different translation:
When at work,
Use established routines to pursue objectives,
Use unpredictability and surprise to innovate and succeed.
Translating Sun Tzu to the workplace
We can never have a completely smooth linear journey with the work we engage in. The unpredictable is always around the next corner. Seeing it as inevitable or predictable removes a lot of the distress it may cause.
By developing an accepting attitude towards these events we learn to relax and be curious about the surprises and disturbances when they come our way.
We engage directly with the good and bad in a constructive way.
We have the ingenuity to adapt our decisions to fit the changing conditions and innovate on the journey to success.
Can you apply Sun Tzu’s principal to help you better position yourself in the workplace?