It's happened to many of us. We're lulled into our comfortable work routines when change hits and rumours start proliferating.
The scenarios differ – your company may be undergoing a merger or acquisition, a labour disruption or just general cost-cutting. Yet the impact it has on employees, who are left feeling helpless and insecure, remains the same.
Having lived through a tech bubble and a financial crash, I can tell you that when instability hits, dynamics at work change fast. Your once-chummy colleagues may begin to focus almost exclusively on professional survival. In my experience, this often takes three forms – employees start creating new allegiances, they become immobilized with fear, or they mentally check out of work to focus on their next career step.
It's the equivalent of a Cold War spy novel, where the underlying politics remain challenging to unravel. In fact, during my last experience at a media company undergoing a major upheaval, a new executive warned me that it's never easy when the incoming army overthrows the ancien régime. It took me a minute to realize that I was part of this old guard.
In my case, I turned a changing business climate into an opportunity to do something new, but others had a tougher time. For those living this scenario right now, there are best practices to weathering this storm.
"One of the problems uncertainty in the workplace creates is a hyperactive overthinking mind that conjures up awful scenarios of the future, which creates stress and anxiety," said Bob Miglani, the New York-based author of Embrace the Chaos.
Mr. Miglani explained that it's easy to get lost trying to figure out what the future holds, but wondering whether you will still have a job and for how long can lead you to become caught up in a spiral of worry and stress. The trick is to let go of the notion of security and realize that the only thing we can control are our own emotions and actions.
"We cannot control the chaos – the possibility of strikes, the layoffs, the takeover – as much as we feel as though we need to. By accepting that what we can control is our actions – our words and our thoughts – then we can begin to start moving forward," he added.
You should keep doing all that's expected of you, since that's where you have control, and making a positive contribution to your workplace spurs confidence. At the same time, Mr. Miglani suggests taking the opportunity to create new goals that can guide you out of these dark times and give you a fresh perspective.
"Sitting still and waiting for 'things to settle' often creates this spiral of negativity and cynicism, which is hard to break. But moving forward by taking on a new project or developing a new idea can breathe new life to a stagnant soul," he said.
Another pitfall to avoid is spending too much time with your co-workers. Water-cooler talk fuels gossip and your colleagues' insecurity can be infectious. Instead, seek out new people at a seminar or workshop, or friends in a different industry.
"Reconnecting and cultivating social bonds with people who lift you up, make you laugh or boost your confidence can give you the much-needed energy to tackle the challenges when you go to work on Monday," he advised.
The onus to manage chaos doesn't rest exclusively with the individual, said Rodger Harding, a Toronto-based business leadership and strategy consultant. In an ideal scenario, employers and managers should ensure they engage in timely and honest communication with their employees so that they can manage change more effectively. Unfortunately, this often doesn't happen, Mr. Harding said, especially among companies that want to maintain the veneer of a business-as-usual approach.
Mr. Harding often asks clients a few key questions to help them take back control. For example, do I enjoy my current work? Is my contribution wanted? Is my compensation package appropriate, and am I learning and growing in the short term? These questions, he said, normally provoke a rational response about whether or not an employee should invest in their current situation or find something new.
In the end, this chaos could just be the opportunity you are looking for.
"Some of the best things in life can happen in times of uncertainty and chaos," Mr. Miglani said. "I met my wife by chance, got my best career opportunities in a turbulent time, and got to appreciate the best things about life when things were not so predictable," he added.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler