24 March 2024

Learning to live with the curve balls

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Seeking to control all aspects of a project can lead to some nasty surprises. Photo: Benchmark Training.

Michelle Gibbings says it is natural to want control over all aspects of our workplace life, but no matter how much we plan and prepare, there will always be factors we can do nothing about.

Control: it’s a powerful word.

Control is a concept that exists across the spectrum of our personal and professional lives.

We love to feel like we are in control of what we do, who we are, why we do something and where we are heading. Feeling in control feels good, comforting even.

Yet, as comforting as it may seem, control is illusionary. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and no matter how much you plan or prepare, there will always be factors beyond your control.

When you fixate on controlling everything, you risk becoming a micro-manager, overly perfectionistic, stifling team creativity and innovation, and being difficult to work with.

It can also affect your health and wellbeing, leading to stress and burnout because this myopic focus invites more anxiety into your daily routine. Some researchers even suggest that free will, the ultimate element of control, doesn’t exist.

Stanford University Professor Robert Sapolsky argues that much of what we do is based on ”cumulative biological and environmental luck” because we are shaped and influenced by the culture and environment in which we are raised.

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Yes, we are born with a personality, but socialised throughout our life into a way of feeling, thinking and acting. No matter what side of the ”free will” debate you sit on, what’s accepted is that there is much in the world we can’t control.

This fact doesn’t mean you throw your hands up in despair. In the late 1970s, Dr Suzanne Kobasa from the University of Chicago found that executives who handled stress had a ”hardiness”, underscored by three characteristics: commitment, control and challenge. These traits decreased their risk of developing stress-related health problems by 50 per cent.

Commitment: Having a clear purpose, feeling good about your life and being involved in activities that give you connection and meaning.

Control: This is all about how much control you ”feel” you have. The more perceived control, the greater the ability to cope with the stress.

Part of this depends on where your locus of control is: internally or externally driven. People with an external locus believe they have little or no control over their lives and what happens to them. They are the ”fatalists”, or people who think it’s ”all down to fate”.

In contrast, when you have an internal locus of control, you know you can’t control external events or other people and that what you can control is your reaction. Having an internal locus best helps you manage stress so you respond wisely.

Challenge: Whether you view change as a positive challenge and an opportunity to learn, grow and develop.

If you view change as a danger or threat, you are more likely to experience stress. What underpins this approach is a growth mindset — the belief that abilities can be developed and outcomes can be achieved through focus and effort.

This mindset shift fosters a sense of curiosity and resilience, encouraging you to view setbacks not as failures, but as opportunities to learn. It’s accepting that hardiness isn’t something you are born with, but rather a skill that can be developed and strengthened over time. It involves cultivating a positive mindset, maintaining a solid support network, and caring for your physical health.

We cannot control everything in our lives, but we can control how we respond to these events. As Stephen Covey wrote in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (still one of the best self-development books ever written), you are far better off focusing your energy on those matters you can influence. However, we often spend energy on things we are concerned about, yet have no ability to change or influence. You can’t control your boss or colleagues, just as you can’t control the curve balls life throws you.

What you can control is the meaning you put on that curve ball, and how you respond. It’s deciding to notice and accept your emotions, then moving from reaction to wise response mode. Recognising and accepting the difference is crucial in behaving and leading positively, productively and sustainably.

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It’s easier to do this with a self-care plan based on healthy habits, core rituals that nourish your body and soul, and activities to keep you in the best physical, mental and spiritual shape. When your energy is positively charged, you are grateful for what you have. You are generous to others and focus on sharing and supporting those around you.

Remember, no one can navigate the complexities of the working world alone. So, cultivate a circle of supportive colleagues, mentors and friends who provide a support system during challenging times. These people are with you during the good times and the tough times. Together, these elements help ensure you are better equipped to face the uncertainties of the working world.

By letting go of the need to control every aspect of your life, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities and growth. Ultimately, it’s not about controlling the storm but learning to dance in the rain.

Michelle Gibbings is a Melbourne-based change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. She works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She can be contacted at [email protected]. This article first appeared at https://www.changemeridian.com.au/latest-news/.

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