5 Ways of Coping with Chaos

5 Ways of Coping with Chaos

We are all working in times of chaos, right?

The term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) is commonly used in the corporate world to describe the rapid changes economically, politically, socially and technologically that business is having to navigate. This constant state of change might easily be described as ‘chaos’.

The natural thing to do is to work harder. Get more done, work more hours, write more reports, make more plans… But does this actually result in effectiveness and productivity?

Constant change can lead to a negative culture. Things such as restructures, redundancy, new leaders and approaches can lead to insecurity, fear, denial, unwillingness, stress, silo working, negativity, backbiting.

This does not sound much like a place I want to work and I suspect you don’t either. These ‘change cultures’ are the ones that I am most often called in to support as the leadership recognise that they are unhelpful, unproductive and ultimately harmful for the company.

So what can we do? How can we avoid going into this negative cycle when we are dealing with constant change? How can we get out of it once we are in it?

Here are 5 simple (ish) things to consider, as a leader and as part of your team. These will help you cope with the change personally but also help to shape the culture in which you are working.

No 1. Take time out

Stop. Think. Don’t react; respond.

If you have a coach already, use them more regularly to help you think things through. Consider taking up mindfulness. Go for a walk. Take proper breaks.

All this sounds so simple but it has been proven again and again and again to work. When you are trying to constantly perform, you don’t become more effective, you become less. Every successful athlete has down time, mental preparation and rest days built into their schedule.

You may think you don’t have the time to take time out, but you will be more effective with your time if you do, so you will essentially create more time. Your brain is like a muscle – you can exercise it and make it stronger, but it will get tired and need time to rest and rejuvenate. Giving your mental faculties a rest helps you come back stronger.

This really is the key to coping with chaos. Without doing this, there is no point in going any further down this list 🙂 This article tells you more.

Time out is not a nice to have…

No 2. Frame the change

Once you have given yourself time, you can start to step back from the changes that are happening and frame them. Think about where you have come from and where you are going. Questions you might like to consider include:

What are you doing this for? What will the changes mean? What benefits will they bring? What were the problems that these were brought about to solve? Are these problems still true? How far have you already traveled? What successes have you had so far? What is working, what is not working?

These kind of questions are really helpful. It is human nature to beat yourself up for the things you have not done yet. But if you can recognise where you have come from, where you are trying to get to and how much you have already achieved, it can help you frame the rest of the journey.

This is not just for you! If you can do this for others too, it will help with the mindset of those around you during change.

No 3. Spot Patterns and Triggers

Recognise what is happening over and again.

For example, you may find that an announcement of more change triggers an immediate emotional response in you that you take out on those around you. If you know this, you can take yourself out of the situation.

Similarly if you recognise these patterns and triggers in other people you can start to address them. Does a project always stop at a certain point? How can you use this knowledge to address this earlier on in the project?

No 4. Change one thing

So you have taken some time. You have stepped back and framed the future. You have recognised certain patterns and triggers. Now you must take responsibility for yourself. You cannot change anyone else – only yourself. But don’t try and change everything, let’s take small steps.

If we all take responsibility to do one thing differently, the capacity for transformation is huge.

You might decide to have a short walk at lunchtime every day. You might stop and think before you respond to emails from a certain person. Or do a 5-minute breathing exercise each morning. Or zoom out and take the long view once a week.

What one small thing will you do differently?

No 5. Consider your style

There are copious scholarly articles, tests and specialists on leadership styles. But when we are specifically considering this chaotic ‘change culture’, what leadership qualities can you display?

In order to survive in a VUCA world, your organisation needs to be innovative, fast paced in its response, able to manage change and diversity, have excellent market intelligence, be based on sound business fundamentals and be truly collaborative; with employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and society. (adapted from Sarkar, 2016)

Does this sound like your organisation?

The old ‘transactional leader’ who uses rewards and punishments to motivate staff is essentially trying to control the environment. Trying to control chaos is like holding on to an eel.

One way is to become a ‘Responsible Leader’. This combines the key elements of Transformational Leadership (being inspirational), Servant Leadership (empowerment) and Authentic Leadership (being values-led). This inspires people to do great things, empowers them to give them a go and motivates them to do it right.  This is not a simple ask but might help you navigate the chaos.

So there you go. Five things: Take time out. Consider where you have come from and where you are going. Spot helpful and unhelpful patterns. Change one thing and Be authentic.

If you have someone to help you with this – use them. If you don’t? Then independent support can really help. Who can you talk to outside this chaos that will listen to you wholeheartedly, challenge your thinking, hold you to account and give you a port of calm in the storm?


Lucy Harrison is an executive coach and facilitator with years of experience in supporting teams and individuals through change.

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