Published on

Maintaining a Healthy-Enough Mindset through Uncertainty

  • avatar
    jen chan

Climate change, big tech layoffs, inflation, AI replacing work... Things have seemed grim for working in tech.

But this can't be farther from the truth.

I don't know of a job where I can work from anywhere, find help I need at any hour, participate in spirited debates, and wear t-shirts to work. The demand for talent and experience hasn't reduced even if large companies have been doing layoffs. Canadian talent continues to brain drain to the US.

This post isn't going to show you how to keep or find a job, but how you might reframe your thinking to manage anxiety around changing conditions at work.

Competency vs. Likability

The cultivation of competence at work (or on paper) is a strange performance. Women, non-binary, BIPOC and trans folks have the added challenge of nailing this the first 20 minutes of a job interview, and then nurturing it in the first months at a new role -or that perception is stuck to you til you switch jobs.

Competency vs Likability Matrix from Harvard Business Review

You need to show the right amount of ambition and political savvy–you can't be too thirsty, you have to be knowledgeable without being intimidating, friendly while clear with boundaries, assertive about expectations without appearing aggressive.

I don't have answers for this and I'm still figuring it out. What I do know:

  • When you're new, asking as many questions about how things are done or restating that you're new helps people guide you.

  • If you've been overly approval-seeking then you're giving whoever you work for all the power to determine your worth.

  • If you act vulnerable or transparent, watch whether people use it as ammo against your performance-you may be working somewhere that punishes honesty and shoots messengers.

  • If you are reading this as one recently deemed "incompetent" or just-fired, take the time to process it. It happens more often than people talk about, and there are likely more factors at play that led up to that move, than how you're thinking of yourself now.

Create Virtuous Cycles

One thing I've learned about improving relationships at work is to recognize the roles others had in helping you get your work done. For example, your manager does long meetings with clients so you can spend more time coding. Clue into what others are working on day-to-day, and share openly with them what you're doing.

Appreciate the hidden labor that teammates shoulder to fill in gaps due to understaffing or someone else's incompetence. Is there someone who's setting up meetings and writing incredible doc? They're doing extra to make everyone's lives easier... and sometimes, there is simply no agenda other than to reach the goals your company paid you both to do more easily.

Focus on high leverage activities that are easy for you to do but helps others move ahead and grow disproportionately. When you notice others doing this, go to their manager to commend them.

Help others help you, and help others help others. ✌️✌️✌️

Help me, help you, says Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire

Find Purpose

I heard most people spend two thirds of their adult life doing this thing called "work".

While not everyone needs purpose to make a living, figuring out the following helps with career planning:

  • What do you enjoy about being a developer?

  • Which aspect of development do you most enjoy?

  • What are your strengths vs what you find easy to do and learn?

  • Where did you envision yourself when you started your programming journey, and what would you tell yourself now?

Write these down and begin making realistic micro-goals to get there.

When you know where you want to go next, you begin choosing more appropriate opportunities.

You begin defining success for yourself.

More about finding purpose by Simon Sinek.

Work on your Internal Locus of Control

You can't control the weather or the interest rates, but you can control how you respond to change, and how you talk about yourself.

Counteract chastising yourself for mistakes with thinking ahead on how you can prevent them going forward.

Locus of Control diagram

Recognize the Impact of Scarcity and Abundance Mentality

Have you worked for people who operated out of fear of repercussions? This usually happens in workplaces with authoritarian leadership styles. Fear of failure ends up stifling any experimentation or innovation.

Abundance mentality vs. scarcity mentality

Even without blatant abusive moves, it can manifest in the following ways:

  • totally quiet meetings where no one talks and everyone is disengaged
  • refusal to take responsibility or make decisions
  • deferring the completion of planned tasks even when help is offered
  • my-way-or-the-highway approaches to disagreement
  • micro-managing behaviours, including the nitpicking of spelling, grammar or wording
  • requests for many revisions that don't lead to any solid business outcomes
  • sudden changes in requirements as you are working on something

With a few experiences, you'll begin to notice that the same work could be done with personalities that possess abundance mindset--people who are open to learning, being wrong and trying again. It's also not your job to help them through this or be the emotional urinal for their concerns. If you're a consultant however, maybe you'll win points by just continuing to bill :D

It takes immense trust and confidence to admit fault, solution and mitigate errors effectively as a team. I've only learned the importance of this by working with people with more experience who had a steady and focused manner of dealing with problems on the eve of a delivery. So it's a net win for productivity and time-to-hotfix if you have a culture of openness.

Some of these qualities are expanded on in the Westrum Organizational Culture Model by devops research at Google.

Reduce contact with those who fan the flames of scarcity mentality, or try to find a way to work around them. Whether intentionally or not, their maneuvers slowly break down the people who work with them.

Anecdote time

Earlier in my career I went through some workplaces that expected immediate results, where unforgiving attitudes and long hours were the norm. I became extremely resourceful at getting things done, but internalized the belief anything I did wasn't "good enough yet". By my fifth job, I was shit-talking work I did that was filling in for a role above my level, while presenting to higher-ups.

Thankfully, some caring senior leaders took me aside and made me aware of the unhealthy self-judgment I carried with me from previous workplaces. I was hard on myself, and this sent a message that I was hard on others.

By not objectively taking stock of my own achievements and constantly comparing myself to others, I didn't have a clear sense of what the reality of demand for my skillset was on the market.

What I wrote here is pretty corny and probably took a decade of reflection across 2 industries, and I-don't-know-how-many-hours of therapy.

What have you recognized as fears about your own employability or longevity at work?

How did you cope with it?

What are ways you've helped others through a difficult period in their career?