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Dealing with Change and Chaos at Work

written by Lisa Jacobson 21 October 2013

Lisa G. Jacobson, MAPP '08, SPHR, runs an executive coaching and career consultation practice called Workplace Solutions in Tampa, Florida. She helps people make meaningful career decisions and transitions. Lisa is certified as a Senior HR professional and a Myers-Briggs practitioner. Before launching her own business, Lisa was a human resources business partner at Verizon. Full bio pending. Her articles are here.

The 6th annual Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare Conference occurred in Boston on September 26-27, 2013. The conference was sponsored by the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. According to the conference announcement, it is intended to serve the professional development of leaders, physicians, healthcare providers, executive coaches, life coaches, and coaches in health and wellness.

Dealing with Change and Chaos in the Workplace: 4 Critical Ingredients

Keynote speaker Amy Edmondson launched the conference telling 750 participants to “Look to the left. Now, look to the right. One of you will not be here next year.” Laughter fills the room. It’s an all too familiar truth these days, not only in professional schools but in the workplace too. The lesson being, business teams as we know them are facing daunting odds. Their very nature is unstable and dynamic. Leaders can no longer count on the constancy of teams. Leaders must prepare for and proactively deal with predicable chaos and change.

Referencing her book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Edmonson gave us the four critical ingredients in her recipe for success: Aim High, Team-Up, Fail Well, Learn Fast. Like other successful recipes, she urged us to repeat them as often as necessary.

Aim High

To aim high, Edmonson gave us three markers:

  1. Start with worthy aspirations. Will your goal make a positive difference in the world?
  2. Make sure your goal touches both hearts and minds.
  3. Make your goal an attainable stretch.

Team Up

Edmondson intentionally used teaming as a verb stressing “teamwork on-the-fly.” She stressed that teaming is especially needed when the work is complex.

She urged leaders to create an empowered collective. Teams can be made up of diverse statuses, disciplines, languages, cultures, values, and geography. Encourage curiosity and keep the dialogue of telling (Advocacy) and asking (Inquiry) in balance.

Watch-out for blind spots caused by worn, ingrained patterns of awareness. We are aware of our intentions and the impact they have on ourselves. However, we are often unaware of the impact we have on others. Prevent blind spots by cultivating curiosity about how we arrive at assumptions. Learn while working. Take steps to ensure that team members feel psychologically safe, especially safe enough to admit large and small mistakes.

Be mindful of the Ladder of Inference: when we leap from data, facts, and experiences and recklessly jump to conclusions. There is a danger that our conclusions can take on the moral imperative of fact.

Fail Well

Create an environment where team members are encouraged to discuss mistakes and lessons learned and where individuals will not fear being punished or humiliated. In a study of 26 hospital intensive care units, there was a strong correlation between position status and the willingness to fearlessly admit mistakes and discuss what was learned. The higher the status the more willing to admit mistakes without fear of reprisal.

Learn Fast

Through inclusive leadership, leaders proactively acknowledge their own fallibility. They don’t have all the answers, and they need input from others in order to fully understand all sides of a situation.

Finally, Edmondson reminded us to apply the four critical ingredients generously and repeat as often as necessary.


Edmondson, A. (2012). Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Muzio, E. The Ladder of Inference Creates Bad Judgment. Short video explaining the concept.

Argyris, C. (2010). Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change. Oxford University Press. Chris Argyris originated the Ladder of Inference concept.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses

Picturing chaos courtesy of Minhimalism
Sun Yat-Sen bamboo park in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side courtesy of ecstaticist. From the picture’s page: “This bamboo forest is in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens is an amazing oasis of calm and beauty in the Downtown East Side, which is otherwise notorious internationally for its drug addiction, poverty, decay and general nastiness.”

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