Finding Purpose in Chaos

One Friday afternoon is permanently etched in my psyche, 5th June 2009, the day the organisation I was working for was scrapped. Ok the officialdom called it a merger, but in effect it was a takeover, a scrapping and a general disassembling of an organisation I loved and had worked so hard to build. I felt bereft, angry and generally in need of several large Sauvignon Blanc’s.

Sudden change can hit us emotionally with the force of a high-speed juggernaut. My own research reveals that during the above change 31% of people experienced sleep loss, 37% were snappier and more irritable with others, 43% suffered increased anxiety and 50% suffered from an inability to concentrate. These statistics evidence that change has real, measurable and serious impacts on the organisation, the individual and those around them.

But why is change so stressful? After all we live with constant change in our home life, moving jobs, moving house, changing energy suppliers and so on. Change is stressful when we feel it is being done to us, rather than by us, or with us. When we perceive a lack of control or ability to influence what is happening to us, we become anxious. Whilst we can’t control every part of all the change we are exposed to, if we can develop a personal sense of meaning and purpose, we can begin to take control over those elements of the change which matter to us. This in turn will increase our ability to navigate the change effectively.

So how do you find meaning in change, especially when it feels that there is little meaning to be had? Looking to others for meaning and purpose may result in disappointment, dismay or confusion, especially if those around you are also struggling to make sense of the change.

Sometimes we need to look within ourselves to find a meaning and purpose that will enable us to move forward productively, enabling us to feel in control of enough of the change to get some traction and propel ourselves into a future we can work with. Having a sense of control and agency over how the change is implemented is important as it enables us to move away from feeling like a ‘victim of change’ towards becoming an architect of change. But what if we are anxious about the change?

Experiencing anxiety is common in times of change. It can arise from various sources including changes to our job role, changes to social factors such as a location change, or from ‘hear-say’ or gossip. The anxiety that arises can be paralysing, we may fear making the wrong choice (e.g. to leave or to stay). We may be anxious about supporting changes that feel misaligned with our values, or appears to take the organisation away from the direction we believe it needs to go. These feelings can prevent us from identifying a purpose we can put our energy into. So what can we do?

In her book ‘Presence’ Amy Cuddy suggests that ‘reframing’ our anxiety as ‘excitement’ enables us to acknowledge the emotion we feel, whilst harnessing it to bring about a positive outcome. Anxiety and excitement are very similar feelings yet have a very different impact on how we react to change. Anxiety is a negative emotion which can stimulate the amygdala in our brain, causing us to adopt a fight or flee approach. This in turn shuts down our executive brain where our creative thinking takes place. When we are in a state of anxiety, we focus on alleviating the immediate cause of distress and speedily moving away from it. However, by reframing our feeling as excitement, we give our executive brain the chance to identify options, opportunities and possibilities, unleashing our most creative self on the uncertainty surrounding the change.

This creative thinking enables us to identify things we can do to move us forward, giving us meaning and purpose. The mindset that accompanies excitement enables us to identify and then seize opportunities, fosters optimism and additionally it encourages positive behaviours. Reframing anxiety as excitement prevents negative emotion from overwhelming us and adversely impacting our performance.

Of course, for us to successfully engage with change we also require access to timely information, relevant facts and knowledge, this can further reduce our anxiety and even encourage us to support change. By adopting an optimistic disposition, others are more likely to want to discuss options with us and share ideas or information. The information we then glean further equips us to identify potential opportunities and make informed decisions. Furthermore, when we participate in decisions about the change, we are more likely to feel ownership of the change process, further increasing our sense of purpose. In other words, we create an upward spiral of purpose and optimism.

Research also shows that we are more likely to do well in change and to support the organisation in delivery of change if we see change as a challenge (something we can rise to meet) rather than as an insurmountable obstacle (Miller, Johnson & Grau, 1994). This can be extremely helpful, as it means we start to view inevitable issues as challenges we can overcome, rather than problems which will overwhelm and defeat us.

Finally, change brings many potential challenges which we may not know the answer to, which can be discouraging. However, by drawing on a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2012) we can change our perception. Rather than saying to ourselves ‘I don’t know what to do about this issue’, a growth mindset enables us to add the word ‘yet’. By saying ‘I don’t know what to do about this issue yet’, I am acknowledging that with effort and focus I can find a way forward and my purpose emerges to seek solutions.

This simple reframing of anxiety as excitement, of problems as challenges and of issues as solutions not yet found is a conscious choice. These choices are at the heart of a purposeful mindset, and go hand in hand with a deliberate mindset of optimism which is explored in more detail in the article are you optimistic about change?

Can I assess how purposeful my mindset is?

Yes you can! The Change Efficacy Questionnaire assesses your change mindset capability by looking at 6 resource areas which our research identified as fundamental to successfully navigating change and enhancing coping during times of extreme uncertainty.  These resources are, purposefulness, openness, resilience, efficacy, optimism and support.

As well as being free to use, you get a downloadable report with questions for reflection and ideas for improving your capability in each of these areas.  It was developed for use in an organisational setting and is versatile enough to be used by individuals, groups, coaches, facilitators, change managers, project managers, HR and well-being specialists to name but a few. You can also download ideas on how to use the CEQ in individual and group settings and discover more about ‘The Science Behind the CEQ’.


Useful References

Cuddy, A. (2015). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. London: Orion Books

Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd

Fredrickson, B.L. & Cohn, M.A., (2008) Positive Emotions, Ch. 48., p777-796, in Lewis, M..; Haviland-Jones, J.M. & Barratt, L.F. (2008) Handbook of Emotions. New York: The Guildford Press

Fredrickson, B.L., (2009), Positivity, London: OneWorld Publications

Miller, V.D., Johnson, J.R. & Grau, J. (1994). Antecedents to willingness to participate in a planned organisational change. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 22, 59-80.

Ong, A.D., Bergeman, C.S. & Chow, Sy-Miin, (2010), Positive emotions as a basic building block of resilience in adulthood. in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, New York: Guildford Press.

Reichard, R.J., Avey,J.B., Lopez, S. & Dollwet, M. (2013). Having the will and finding the way: a review and meta-analysis of hope at work. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(4),292-304.