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  • Jodie Lamb

Coaching when it feels inappropriate to plan for the future


Planning, goal setting, vision board, career planning, values based coaching

I worked with a client yesterday who wants to progress their career. But it felt inappropriate to them to think about changing their job, or even thinking about what to do next, because they felt that they didn’t want to abandon their team at a time of crisis. We started working together before Covid-19 took hold, and since then so much has happened. In the U.K. we are currently early in lockdown, and working from home, and I think it’s safe to say that everyone is feeling a bit wobbly.

Despite their feelings we had a great session. Coaching is a good, even a comforting thing to do right now, because even in times of crisis you remain the person that you always were, albeit with different habits and behaviours. So you will still able to examine the needs you want to be met in your working life, and what values of yours any future job should embody.

This post will discuss what happens when it feels wrong to think about the future because there so much weighty stuff going on in the present. And it will conclude that in times like this it’s ok to reflect and to plan – in fact it can be empowering and settling to do that.

While the pandemic is a time of frightening uncertainty that is affecting the whole of the global population, you will have already, or will in the future, face difficult life experiences and uncertainties that can feel similarly paralysing.

When it’s hard to envisage what the future will look like it can seem impossible to plan or even to know what you are going to want down the line.

The thing to recognise while this is going on is that your relationship to your working life is governed by the extent to which it feeds and supports your values.

So, times of uncertainty, far from being the wrong time to think about the future of your career, are actually a great time to examine your passions: the things that engross and fascinate you, the people that motivate you, what you value most in the world and how you want your work to reflect these things.

I found, after my husband left me and when my stepdaughter died that I was so acutely aware of what was important it helped me with the very difficult decision to abandon my academic ambitions. Under normal circumstances, I know that I would have carried on and finished my PhD (see previous blog posts/ about me section for more info) because I would have been fearful of wasting the three years that I spent studying and writing; and would have worried about how others would perceive my choices: would they think me a failure? These fears would have surpassed everything else.

But what actually happened for me was that I knew that I had to look after myself and my well-being. I appraised my situation and was able to see that although academia allowed me to engage with a lot of what I valued, and people that I felt a deep affinity with, there were several fundamentals that were anti-values for me (competitiveness, ruthlessness, an emphasis on quantity over quality) and on balance, the right thing to do was to let go.

I do regret that the long efforts that I put in, and that the personal costs of PhD study have not been rewarded with a certificate of proof in the form of a doctorate. However, I do not regret quitting. I valued the experience and the intense learning that came from it, and I am glad that it has given me the clarity to pursue work that I want to do. I am very happy to have avoided the final writing push that took so many of my friends to (I don’t think this is an exaggeration) the brink of madness, and exhausted their reserves for months afterwards.

How to take stock in a crisis

There are two types of crisis that might arise making you rethink how you work and how you experience your career. The first is a crisis within the job itself, and in many ways this is a trickier beast (because your immediate dissatisfactions influence what you think you want, and you might lack objectivity). What I am going to focus on here is a crisis from a source outside work, like the current pandemic, a personal loss, or a change in circumstances.

Listen to your intuition

Everyone experiences niggly things at work that irritates or annoy them. But there are some things that feel more maddening, and more fundamental. You may have left jobs or roles previously that came to feel deeply unsatisfying. Try to learn from these past experiences to understand your preferences.

Some things are universal and may not be very illuminating. For example, few people like to be micromanaged because it diminishes trust, curtails freedom and creativity, and allows the micromanager to control all aspects of your job. If you don’t like being micromanaged it doesn’t mean that your primary value is to work autonomously – it really just means that you don’t like working for a bad manager! Think more about the kinds of things that don’t chime with your values in a more personal sense. For example, if you are in a job that requires frequent socialising, but you are of a quieter, more insular disposition, you may be in the wrong job for you. If you derive a sense of pleasure and focus specifically from working alone, this may point to a leaning towards autonomy and solo-work.

Try the exercises below to start to determine the values that drive you, as distinct from particular jobs or work environments:

Exercise 1: What Drives you Mad?

· Choose three different jobs or roles (if you have fewer than these to draw from include experiences in clubs, activities or education settings).

· Write an account of what frustrated you and drove you mad in each of these roles.

· Include as much detail as possible.

job dissatisfaction, unhappy with job, job driving me mad

What gets you in a state of flow?

· Choose three different jobs or roles (if you have fewer than these to draw from include experiences in clubs, activities or education settings).

· Write an account of the times in these jobs that allowed you to get into a flow state (this is when you have felt entirely immersed, focused and productive in a task).

· Include as much detail as possible.

flow, pleasure, job satisfaction

Here’s an example from my own experience: immediately after finishing my undergrad degree I worked in a designer fashion store. The hours were 9am to 6pm 5 days a week. The pay was eye wateringly low. There was a staff discount of 40%, and a uniform allowance every season. All the staff were of a similar age and stage as me, and we frequently all went for a drink together after work.

What drove me mad about this job was the frequent boredom, customers that were rude or disrespectful, that every single day was the same, the rigid working hours, weekend working and being off when other people weren’t, when the season’s collection was not to my liking, and the long and crowded bus commute (especially in the mornings).

What got me in a state of flow was cleaning and tidying the shop (I always volunteered to hoover or mop the floor at the end of the day and enjoyed folding clothes and tidying rails), receiving and learning about new stock, working with customers that wanted help choosing clothes and shoes and making them feel good about themselves, and the social aspects of the job – getting to know colleagues well and spending time together outside of work.

Exercise 2: Why? Why? Why?

This is a process of drilling down into your answers. Take one statement at a time from the previous exercise and ask the question “why do I like/dislike X", and continue to do so for each answer.

e.g.

Q: Why do I dislike rude customers?

A: I dislike it when people fail to treat me as an equal based on my job role.

Q: Why do I dislike it when people fail to treat me as an equal?

A: I think that everyone deserves respect irrespective of any perceived hierarchy.

Q: Why do I think that everyone deserves respect?

A: I believe in harmony, equality and kindness.

Q: Why do I believe in harmony, equlaity and kindness?

A: I believe that harmony and kindness bring the best out of people and can make even boring or difficult jobs more enjoyable. I believe that all people are fundamentally equal and deserve to be treated as such.

Q: Why etc…

Continue until you have exhausted your answers, or your answers become repetitive. (you can replace “why?” questions with “what?” questions if that works better for you, or mix the two for different statements).

When I look at my Why? Why? Why? answer in the context of my whole career I can see that I like to work in roles where I do not have to observe hierarchy or play a specific role (particularly a subservient role). I want to be authentically myself treating others at all levels of the organisation with respect and being treated respectfully in return. I can also see that this chimes with my dislike of competition. I like a work-place that is harmonious and collaborative.

If I were to do this for all of my likes and dislikes I would start to develop a very clear picture of my patterns, and be able to discern with some certainty my own values in relation to my career. I could then start looking at roles that fit those values.

As always I would advise that working with a coach will move you further in terms of your understanding of what you value more quickly and accurately. This is because they can employ greater objectivity and have experience of asking the kinds of questions that will help you to drill down into your answers and avoid your usual biases (e.g. when you say “I am no good at X” a coach will help you to figure out what this means and how relevant it is to your career).

However, you can still do this kind of exercise alone and gain significant insight into what you want, and how a job or career can serve you best. The deeper you drill down, the greater your understanding will be.

As you can see, this kind of exploration does not require any specific knowledge of how a job landscape will look in 6 moths time, or any planning, because whatever the landscape you will have a better idea of what areas will work best for you, and will provide you with the most satisfying career. So in a time of crisis be curious about what motivates and drives you – you are likely to be able to see that more clearly when your routines and habits are disrupted.