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This Underappreciated Job Skill is All in Your Head

By Fast Company


The faster things change–work priorities, technologies, even social norms–the harder it is to stay competitive in the workforce. Adaptability, broadly speaking, is essentially table stakes for keeping up in the future of work. But there’s one skill in particular that can help you adapt no matter what gets thrown at you, and it’s one that doesn’t often make it into forward-looking conversations about emotional intelligence and other “soft skills” commonly deemed crucial to the evolving workplace.

It’s the ability to be flexible in how you achieve your goals. When it comes to goal achievement, flexibility isn’t about knowing when to cut your losses and give up. It’s about changing your thinking in order to make progress, no matter what unexpected new obstacles get thrown in your path–or when the path itself becomes unclear.

This capacity rests on the fact, surprising as it may sound, that we don’t actually respond to situations and events. Instead, we respond to the meaning we make of situations and events. And while we can’t always change our circumstances, we typically can change that meaning by practicing flexible thinking. Here’s how.

The Mental Art Of Seeing Things Differently

Imagine a manager at a big corporation. Let’s call her Rebecca. She’s based in New York and relies on teams in China and Europe to do research for the division she oversees. The China team is 12 hours ahead, so she talks with them late at night, and the Europe team is six hours ahead, so she speaks with them in the morning. Because of this, the three groups can almost never work on a project simultaneously. Rebecca, however, delights in this scenario because she can have work done while she sleeps. She plans her days according to the tasks she can do during U.S. work hours, and the other tasks she can outsource so it’ll be waiting for her the next day.

She didn’t always see it that way, however. When Rebecca first started working with this global team, she felt frustrated that they couldn’t communicate when they needed, and she’d feel pressured to work from early in the mornings until late into the night just to keep everyone communicating. Her goals were to run an efficient team, and she felt stressed about struggling to achieve that goal. Every time she thought about the situation, she just relived the stress and got angry and upset all over again.

Rebecca couldn’t change the situation; her team would be spread across three distant time zones no matter what. However, she could change what that situation meant–including how she worked and how emotionally drained it made her feel. Needless to say, an always-on work culture that forces people to work crazy hours is a recipe for burnout–and definitely not all in employees’ heads. But even less hard-driving organizations may contain work arrangements like Rebecca’s, which flexible thinking can sometimes make a lot more bearable.

The Fly-On-The-Wall Technique

University of Michigan researchers led by Ethan Kross, PhD, have found that “watching” some emotionally difficult event in your mind’s eyes, as though from a distance, can be surprisingly effective. That psychological distance can help you view the frustrating experience as dispassionately as possible. When you then try to make sense of why it all happened, you can see it in a whole new light. Study participants who tried this so-called “fly-on-the-wall” technique found they could dramatically change the meaning of what they were experiencing.

It helps diffuse the emotion and shifts your reaction, for example, from feeling very hurt, and not thinking clearly about all your options as a result, to recognizing a better way forward without the hurt feelings. Effects of this kind of perspective shift have been shown to last over time, and to extend beyond emotions to things like lowered blood pressure, better reactions to stressors, and shifts in the way the brain processes difficult situations.

The future of work is likely to be stressful–filled with unpredictable changes and contingencies that threaten to throw us all off balance. The more we can practice flexible thinking, the more rationally and productively we’ll be able to adapt to those changes. Here’s what Rebecca did to recast the meaning of her frustrating work experience:

  • In her mind, she walked 10 feet away, turned around, and looked back at herself as though she were looking at a stranger. She watched what “that stranger” did in reaction to the situation.
  • From this distanced perspective, Rebecca asked why the organization created the demands on that stranger that it did, and why that stranger behaved, said, and thought what she did.
  • Rebecca noticed all the forces at play. She began to see that the company wasn’t out to get the stranger, and that the stranger wasn’t making the best decisions. She could dispassionately see how the needs of the team, the stranger, and the corporation all intersected–and a few new options for the stranger to start working smarter.

Rebecca’s goal was the same: to run an efficient team that works well together. But now, unclouded by anger, she could see some new avenues toward reaching that goal. So she worked with her supervisor to set up flexible hours that allow her to schedule remote weekly meetings with both of her teams, plus a block of time each workday for her to handle tasks she can pass along to the China team after she unplugs for the night, which the Europe team then moves forward in its turn.

Rebecca stopped feeling like she needed to stretch her workday, and even though she isn’t always in the office at the same time as her New York colleagues, she feels she has opportunities that people with a team just in one time zone don’t have. The situation hasn’t changed, but the new meaning her flexible mind-set imbued it with helps her deliver more value to her company, continue to hit her goals, and feel less exhausted in the process.

The key to this simple technique is to change the way the brain processes existing information–and to teach it multiple ways to do just that. It may not be a skill recruiters are looking for on LinkedIn (yet), but it’s likely to serve you well in the years ahead.

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