The Challenge of Coping with Chaos


When you face the discomfort and uncertainty brought about by change, it's tempting to want to do something to deal with the situation. But, acting precipitously could be a big mistake. In this column, Naomi Karten explains why and offers some suggestions of what to do instead.

The turbulence of change throws many people into chaos, a state characterized by foggy thinking, difficulty focusing, physical distress, and emotions that are different from--and often stronger than--what is typical.

Chaos is unsettling, so it's natural to want to do something--anything--to ease the pain or escape its discomfort. The problem, of course, is that when your thought processes are muddled and your emotions are controlling you, your decisions don't reflect the rational thinking and analysis that you're capable of when you're clear-headed. And so, driven by chaos, you might quit your job, scream at your customer, storm out of a meeting, take a bat to your computer, or reply to an angry email message with an even angrier response (and hit Reply All).

Therefore, when you're in chaos, the smartest strategy is not to do anything that you can't undo or make any irreversible decisions that you might regret later. Obviously, in some situations, you need to respond instantly. When a car is speeding toward you on the highway, it's not a time for delayed decision making. But when the situation permits, it's far preferable to wait till the chaos diminishes or at least to seek the advice of others before taking action.

Rich, a project manager, learned the hard way that it's easy to spout something reflexively while in the throes of chaos that can affect everything up to and including the rest of your life. As an IT manager many years ago, I was grooming Rich to move into management. He excelled at inspiring his team members to go beyond what they believed themselves capable of. His peers liked him; his customers liked him. He was on his way to a promotion. Until, that is, Dave ambled by.

Dave was an IT director and my boss's boss. He was a tall, mean-looking dude with an occasionally brusque manner that concealed his inner teddy bear. Dave rarely ventured into the cubicles. On this particular day, however, he headed straight for Rich to ask him something. When he saw the piles of clutter on Rich's desk, he made a nasty but very Dave-like wisecrack.

Normally, Rich was masterful at using his sense of humor to diffuse tension. But, he was human and didn't like being treated this way by a superior who should have been a role model. Dave's comment was a trigger that instantly threw Rich into chaos. He responded in kind--or maybe a little more than in kind--which is a bad idea when facing the person who controls the direction of your career path. In that split second, Rich's future changed.

When I learned what had happened, I tried to intervene on Rich's behalf, but it was too late. Rich's management prospects in this company were doomed.

What happened to Rich can happen to anyone. In chaos, people can lose the ability to think about the consequences of their actions. As Rich discovered too late, one of the challenges that chaos poses is recognizing you're in it when you're in it. Unfortunately, the jostling impact of chaos makes that difficult. But, with practice and presence of mind, you can gain the ability to recognize the signs and to prevent yourself from saying or doing something precipitously.

For myself, I've learned that no matter how bad chaos feels initially, I'm going to feel better tomorrow, the next day, or next week; and I need to put off doing anything in which making a mistake or doing something foolish could have serious repercussions.

A good starting point is to think about times you've been in chaos and reflect on how you reacted. If you make a mental note of the signs of chaos now and the things that trigger it, you'll stand a better chance of recognizing them when they strike.


This article is adapted from Naomi Karten's book, Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change: Focusing on the Human Side of Change, IT Governance Ltd., 2009.

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