Confusion and uncertainty creates stress and anxiety at work

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Is this common blind-spot causing stress and anxiety at work?

Maybe you’ve just been promoted, taken on a new project or a high-profile client at work. You know what your job description is and what is on your ‘to-do’ list. But perhaps you haven’t been in the ‘learning’ phase of a job for a while. Those awkward, clumsy days of spilling coffees, asking embarrassing questions and making mistakes was a phase you thought you had mercifully put behind you.

And yet you might be finding the discomfort, stress and anxiety of those times are coming back to haunt you because in your new position, you no longer have the comfort blanket of your previous experience which got you to the point where you could just ‘get on with it’. You might be suffering a crisis of confidence, feel like a fraud and are panicking to the point that you just want to pack it in.

Learning isn’t meant to be easy

Before I talk practical strategies, my main message to you is that what you’re experiencing is completely normal. Any learning curve is rarely plain sailing. If it’s feeling difficult, confusing and stressful it’s probably because you are growing and stretching your knowledge and skills. Particularly if you’ve been cruising for a while, this is bound to feel uncomfortable.

The mistake we often make when we feel stress and anxiety at times like these is that we take it as a sign that we’re not talented, competent or [insert other failing] enough to do the job. This can be down to the mistaken belief many of us hold that “successful people are always confident in what they do” or “successful people always know what to do next”. This belief needs exposing for the nonsense that it is. The reality is that successful people are often plagued by Impostor Syndrome and invariably have gone through the self-doubt, confusion and mistakes you have. They just never told you about it.

Start showing yourself a bit more compassion by speaking to yourself with the level of love and kindness you would a good friend. If your best friend was feeling overcome with stress and anxiety because they were floundering in the face of new challenges at work would you think they were a failure? Would you chastise them for not being good enough and tell them they should stop wasting their time? Didn’t think so.

Getting clear on feedback and knowing when you’ve done a ‘good job’

A simple solution to growing our confidence and enjoyment at work, particularly when we’re going through a stretch or a learning curve, is to get really clear on what we’re trying to achieve and how we would know once we’ve achieved it. In this context when I refer to ‘goals’, I simply mean the things that need to be done in a day rather than long term goals such as becoming CEO or partner.

When we achieve flow at work we become totally immersed in it, we lose our self-consciousness and time simply falls away. One of the key ingredients to flow is having clear goals and feedback. One of the strongest examples of this would be in a game of tennis, because you know as soon as you’ve hit the ball whether you’ve achieved your goal or not. In a working context, surgeons have a strong feedback loop as they can see immediately whether they have fixed the problem they are trying to address and can sew the patient up knowing that they have achieved their goal.

It sounds very basic, but I’ve worked with many people who have lacked an understanding of how they would know if they have done a good job. Our unconscious, primitive survival system does not favour uncertainty or wasted energy so its no wonder that when we’re not clear on our goals or feedback system, we can feel stressed, anxious or lack motivation in relation to what we’re doing.

Our brain operates a reward system by which when we feel we have achieved something, we are treated to a lovely feel-good hormone called dopamine. The dopamine system drives us towards pleasure and away from pain so it’s important you have a measure by which you can mentally ‘tick off’ daily tasks to keep you motivated and satisfied in what you’re doing.

Create your own daily feedback system

So, the challenge for you is to think about how you can create a better feedback system in your daily working life and gain more clarity about your daily working goals. A couple of examples could include:

  • Setting some time aside to talk to colleagues, peers or mentors who have achieved mastery in their field to gain their view on how they know when they have met their daily goals (you may find they struggle with the same thing!). This conversation isn’t to compare your work with theirs, but to gain a better understanding of the daily process they created to get there.
  • Sending out questionnaires to clients, customers or stakeholders to gain a deeper, detailed understanding of what they want from you and what is most important to them. Again, this may sound basic, but so often we can base our work on our assumptions of what people want or expect rather than doing some real-life research and fact-finding.

The uncomfortable conversation

A common reason why many people muddle through the stress of being uncertain of whether they are achieving what they set out to do is because they are:

  1. Not willing to have a potentially uncomfortable conversation with whoever they are working for as the other person is forced to get clear on what they want and take responsibility for conveying that clearly.
  2. Not willing to be vulnerable in asking for help for fear of them being exposed as a fraud or incompetent.

If this is you then take comfort that this is simply a by-product of your unconscious mind wanting to preserve your social standing and to ensure that your fit in wherever you’re working. However, the rewards of gaining the clarity which allows you to create a rewarding feedback system at work are huge – it could make the difference between staying and leaving.

As Tim Ferriss says “a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he is willing to have”.

Want to get free from anxiety and stress at work?

If you’re struggling at work right now and you want to regain control, then book in for my free, no-obligation 45 minute Confidence and Clarity call. You’ll get clear on what you want, what’s getting in the way and what the first step you can take to making your future vision become a reality.

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