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Feeling powerless is one of the major contributors to burnout. But are we totally powerless? There are often 5 things we can control in our work environment that enable us to shape our work, unleashing our creativity and energy.
"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." Invictus, William Ernest Henley.
One of the most rewarding feelings, when faced with an exciting challenge, is the sense of being able to control our efforts to create an outcome. This feeling of control is known as self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is having awareness of your skills and confidence that you can use them to face any challenges that arise in your day-to-day life.
It’s a good feeling and one that we might not even notice.
We’re more aware of the opposite: that feeling of defeat, weariness, and deflation when we encounter a setback. It is often accompanied by an inability to think of a next step, or the motivation to take it. We feel at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves.
Feeling that we don’t have control of what we do leaves us disempowered, exhausted, and unsure of our abilities. Sometimes, this becomes a vicious cycle that we don't know how to escape. We don't feel strong enough to take action. This situation can lead to burn-out, a state that reduces productivity and drains your energy.
What are the signs of burnout? Feeling a lack of accomplishment, ineffectiveness, and disconnection while also feeling completely overwhelmed. These characteristic signs of burnout have a lot to do with the sense of loss of control that we mentioned at the beginning of this article.
How are our sense of control and burn-out related? Sometimes we fall into a mindset in which everything happens to us. Everything comes from outside and we can do very little to change it. When we focus our attention on what is not in our power to change (the situation itself, what the boss thinks, our colleagues’ opinions about our performance in the last meeting...) we end up acquiring, without even realizing it, a victim mindset, without agency or efficacy.
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How can we turn the situation around? Short answer: by focusing on what we can control.
If the situation has a solution, why worry about it? If the situation has no solution, why worry about it? Worrying gives us a false sense of control. When we worry, we keep our attention on what we cannot change, and this makes us feel that we are doing something about it. But, this is far from being true, focusing our attention on things outside our control will leave us exhausted and powerless.
How can we find agency even in situations where so much is beyond our control? By adopting a player-mindset. We can develop and improve our player mindset. In fact, the times of great uncertainty and external headwinds are precisely the times when we can grow the most.
The player-mindset implies choosing to be responsible in the face of a challenge, identifying what we can control in that situation, and putting into action the resources we have to achieve it. Fred Kofman, BetterUp and Leadership Development Advisor at Google explains how moving from a victim to a player mindset can completely change the rules of the game.
Being the agent of what happens in your life gives you the ability to make decisions where you can, to recharge energy by feeling more in control, and to project your actions and their development in the future. This shift brings forth confidence in knowing that there is always a way and actions you can take to achieve your desired outcome. Agency is the basis of player-mindset.
What’s great (and less well-known) is that this agency and player mindset can be developed and improve.
Agency and self-efficacy are two pillars of well-being and productivity. And this is a well-proven fact. There are a multitude of studies that demonstrate how cultivating agency and self-control can have a real impact on our performance and well-being.
- We start believing in ourselves. Beliefs about your ability to succeed in a specific situation or task play an important role in how we approach goals, tasks, and challenges. Believing that we can cause an effect and change the situation with our actions is itself an incentive for action. Therefore, believing that we can change to produce an effect on what we aim to do increases, automatically, our motivation.
A key figure in research on self-efficacy and its impact on our performance and well-being is Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, former president of the American Psychological Association, and BetterUp advisor. Over the years, Seligman's work has yielded interesting insights into how taking control of your work can be a game-changer:
- We discover that we aren’t helpless. There is evidence about what happens when we feel we don't have control over what happens to us: we are more likely to give up instead of trying to take control and act to achieve our goals. How to overcome this? The answer is, again, agency. Becoming active players in our life may help us to learn control and shift from learned helplessness to decided agency.
- We do better and live better. Being aware of the potential effect of our actions on our workplace as a path to organizational success and well-being. The perception that your actions have an impact is an indicator of employee success and organizational health. Being aware of our ability to control what we do in our work and our relationship with our workplace has a real impact on our success as employees.
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There are many different ways of taking control of your work. As a general approach, shifting your mindset from victim to player approach, connecting with your agency, and focusing on what you can do to face the challenges your work is entailing.
As a more practical approach, we propose you the following exercise to do whenever you feel powerless or ineffective:
- Grab a piece of paper and draw two concentric circles, and a dot in the center, which will represent you. It is important to do this exercise on paper instead of trying to do it on your mind. And it is for a good reason: it allows you to take distance, detach and have perspective.
- Now you have these two circles in front of you, write a sentence that summarizes the situation which is making you feel this way; as a title of the exercise.
- The outer circle represents the things that are out of your control. Take a moment, and write them down, inside this outer circle. They could be things like “my colleague’s opinion about my last report” or “the deadline date”.
- The inner-circle represents the things that are in your control, such as “delegating” or “requesting a deadline extension”. Your manager’s decision on extending the deadline may still be out of your control. But requesting it, asking for some help, or delegating is still in your control.
- Now you have “the whole picture” represented in these circles. Start shifting your attention from the outer circle to the inner circle. What could you do today to take control of this situation? That would be how you start taking control of your work.
Becoming active and connecting with your ability to change your reality is already a way of exercising control. You are empowering yourself, even "in the face of challenge.” Activating you player-mindset and asking yourself powerful questions is a great way to start, right now, taking control and recharging energy: What can you do today to take control of your work?
Bandura, A. (1990). Selective activation and disengagement of moral control. Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), 27-46.
Perrig, W. J., & Grob, A. (Eds.). (2000). Control of human behavior, mental processes, and consciousness: essays in honor of the 60th birthday of August Flammer. Psychology Press.
Reece, A., Yaden, D., Kellerman, G., Robichaux, A., Goldstein, R., Schwartz, B., ... & Baumeister, R. (2019). Mattering is an indicator of organizational health and employee success. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-21.
BetterUp Care Coach, MSc Clinical Psychology and Researcher