Lessons in Chaos

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Writing this without making it sound like a rant was challenging this week. That’s because I write about things as they are happening, and sometimes when you are in a moment, it is hard to stop and see the bigger lesson in it.

This week I’ve been asking one question to myself over and over – why do people (and I mean all of us) feel the need to create chaos? What’s in our nature that sometimes makes us want to take the more complicated route when simplicity creates less stress?

Researchers have studied the idea of chaos addiction, stating in general that having experienced chaos at some point in our upbringing (however big or small) our brains become wired to anticipate and sometimes even create chaos as a defense. I get that. The best defense is a good offense, right? It’s better to plan for the worst than get our hopes up and be disappointed. It’s more comfortable to live in a state of constant chaos because then we will be prepared for it. Maybe that’s why we sometimes create it – it’s a form of survival.

But when I think about chaos in the workplace, I think it goes one step further. It comes down to value. Whatever the reason -- a change in roles, leadership, the organizations direction or our own internal story – sometimes we lose sense of our own value in an organization. Is it from this place that we can purposefully or inadvertently create chaos? To demonstrate that we exist? Make a misguided attempt to demonstrate our value? 

Let’s talk about what this chaos looks like. It’s different for everyone and every organization, but I bet there are some similarities. Things like unnecessary escalation – raising concerns to managers without a direct conversation with the person involved. The “cc” tornado – you know, when one email between two people suddenly turns into a group discussion that never seems to reach a conclusion. Assumptions galore – our very human tendency to decide on how a situation will go before exploring others’ true motivations and then acting from those assumptions. However small the action, most of the time, these common culprits can create real chaos in our systems. One thing almost always happens – the time and energy that could be spent on genuine progress is wasted on being involved in or managing the chaos.

Ok, so now we get that it’s no good, but how do we stop it?

Here are four antidotes:

1.       Cultivate Self-Awareness – it’s hard to see negative things in ourselves, but it’s crucial. The best way to stop chaos is to make sure you’re not causing it. If you read the paragraph above and get a pang of ‘ooh I may have done that last week,’ that’s a great start! Don’t hide from that realization. Understand your actions and make an actual change the next time you’re tempted to act out.

2.       Understand your WHY – why are you showing up each day and working in your organization? What role do you play? How does that role help the greater good? If you don’t know – who can give you that clarity? I believe that if we each fundamentally understood our value to the greater good, we could more clearly focus on adding that value each day and be less focused on what others are or are not doing.

3.       Lead with Empathy – I talk a lot about leading with, and living with, more empathy. I don’t believe we talk enough about empathy in the workplace – which is sort of outdated in my opinion. We are humans and ALL humans have emotions. You don’t turn them off because you walked into an office building. Knowing this, can we all work a little harder to understand that our colleagues have emotions and motivations that may not be clear to us? I suggest taking a beat when working with others to stop and ask ourselves – do I really understand where this person is coming from? Have I asked them what’s going on when I don’t feel comfortable or understand their motivations? How do you push yourself to cultivate empathy in the way you work and in your workplace?

4.       Know your Goal – what’s the point? What do you or your team need to achieve and when do they need to achieve it? So often we get lost in the back and forth that we lose sight of the goal. Sometimes you just need to take a step back, divorce yourself from the emotions of the situation (whydoesheALWAYSDOTHIS), refocus on the end game and provide a voice of reason.

It's so easy to get caught up in the crazy – we all do it, but we also have the power to stop it. Know your worth, lead with empathy and then inject reason back into the dialogue and see what happens. Maybe you can stop the chaos. Maybe others will learn from your example and start to do the same. A little less chaos, a little less stress and a lot more productivity – now isn’t that a delightful prospect?

Mory Fontanez