Controlling the Chaos: How Do We React in Times of Uncertainty?
I am a planner—I am not a planner at the micro-level, but I am someone who likes to have a game plan and general framework to operate from in work and in life. And, wow, is planning difficult in these current times! They take the term “VUCA world” to a whole new level (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). It sometimes feels like I am a subject in some type of global stress experiment or intervention in “letting go.”
Realistically, though, I know that uncertainty is a trend that is not going away anytime soon. We face more uncertainty in our world today than I have seen at any other point in my lifetime and likely the same is true for you, regardless of age. It still seems surreal sometimes when I stop to think about just how drastically life has changed for us in the past 90 days. While there have been bright spots and low spots across recent months, the uncertainty seems to be steadily present.
The Need for Control
Uncertainty is the fuel of anxiety and is one of, if not the most, troubling aspects of our current times for most of us to tolerate. While we vary in our degree of comfort with or tolerance of uncertainty, we all want to feel safe and have a certain amount of order and control in our lives—without enough of this, we can feel helpless and overwhelmed.
So, when life feels uncertain and out of control, what do most of us do? We seek to control it—to gain a sense of order and security in insecure times, to help us stay grounded and cope with the seemingly out-of-control things that are happening around us. (Anyone remember the run on toilet paper and hoarding of groceries that happened early in the COVID-19 pandemic?)
While our efforts to gain control may look a little different now than they did earlier on in the pandemic, this coping reaction is still relied upon and especially at times when stress levels spike. Depending on the type of control efforts being made, these can be helpful or unhelpful to us in terms of coping and the impact on our effectiveness at work and home. In a recent article on stress management for leaders, experts from the American Psychological Association describe the potential negative effects when leaders over-control situations as a stress buffer, noting “they can react by becoming rigid and trying to control the crisis response on their own terms. . . they may shut out perspectives of those they typically trust and take on extra demands that get in the way of managing home life or personal care.” Do any of these seem familiar to you? Unfortunately, these well-intended efforts to cope can inadvertently fuel stress levels; and they can also damage trust and morale on the teams we lead.
Focus on Your Circle of Influence
What is a helpful way to cope with short-term and/or prolonged uncertainty? One tool that I find helpful and have shared with many people over the past few months is the Circle of Influence, which comes from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a simple concept that I use as a reference point for re-grounding and to help me determine where to direct my focus and energy in these uncertain times. I share it here in hopes that it will be helpful to you, too.
Each moment and situation that we face provides us with a new choice—we cannot always control the situations that arise, but we can choose to respond in either a proactive or a reactive way, which then impacts how well we cope.
- Proactive – When we respond proactively, we direct our time and energy to the things that we can control/influence—i.e., the things that fall either fully or partially in the Circle of Influence (center of circle). This includes things like our attitude and mindset, our choices, body language, words, and actions. We accept responsibility for our behavior and focus on tackling the things that we can do something about. We can then use problem-focused coping strategies to identify options; choose the best solution; and take small actions to address problems. Doing so not only impacts our situation in a positive way, but also increase the sense of control in our lives and lowers stress levels.
- Reactive – Reactive responses to situations occur when we spend our time and energy either complaining, blaming others, or trying to influence things that fall in the Circle of Concern (outer circle). These are things about which we feel concerned but have no ability to influence, such as the weather, the number of new COVID-19 diagnoses, traffic, other people’s decisions, etc. Not acting on the things that we can influence, and, instead, focusing on these things, heightens stress. It can leave us feeling more brittle, negative, and emotionally taxed.
There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that fall in the Circle of Concern (beyond our control). It is easy to fall into a reactive mindset of “I just don’t have any control” and then stress and ruminate over this and the way we think it should be. Instead, we need to work to catch ourselves and then redirect our focus and actions to the things we CAN proactively influence—no matter how small. Viewing these times as a challenge to be faced and then taking action to apply creative solutions to things within your Circle of Influence will help you to cope well and persist across the ups and downs that life brings. Some days you will find yourself doing this better than others. Just be sure to give yourself grace and course correct when needed. Have a great week out there and let us know if we can help!
For additional suggestions of ways to improve your tolerance for uncertainty, use the hyperlink to check out this great article published recently by HelpGuide.org, entitled “Dealing With Uncertainty During the Coronavirus Pandemic”