The Secret to Feeling In Control Of Your Destiny Under Risky Conditions (At The Office and Beyond)

Do you think having a 50% chance of dying while at work everyday might affect your job satisfaction?

Well, according to the 1945 report, Men Under Stress, that was the mortality rate for fighter pilots in World War II, the highest among the military. And yet, they also had the highest job satisfaction in the military, 93% of them claiming to be happy with their assignments.

How could this be? As Taylor Clark relates in his fascinating book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

“They felt in control of their fate. They could maneuver however they liked through a huge airspace and they believed, to a man, that their piloting skill would determine their survival, not luck.”

There you have it. No activity, even flying in enemy territory, is inherently stressful. Rather, the more certainty and control we think we have – not how much we actually have — the less stress we feel.

You can see my cheat sheet for feeling more comfortable with uncertainty here. Now let’s talk about what you can do to feel more in control:

Confidence in your skill

My favorite example of this is rock-climbers. Surrounded by unpredictable physical threats — a sudden storm, avalanche or drop in temperature – they focus on what they can control: their skill, preparation and ability to find the next hand hold. Although the final outcome will always be uncertain and out of their actual control, they derive satisfaction from knowing they are equipped to handle whatever comes up and thus influence the outcome.

A dash of autonomy

A surefire recipe for intensifying stress is to combine a feeling of powerlessness with uncertainty. Take a traffic jam, for example. German medical researchers found in a 2009 study that being stuck in traffic – caught in an unmoving blockade of cars with no idea when it will let up — more than triples your chances of suffering heart attack.

Autonomy, however, can counteract this effect. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink relates how Zappos, the progressive online retailer used it: Typically, jobs at call centers have turnover rates of 35% in the US and UK, double the rate for other jobs. Zappos, however, provides its customer service team with extensive training and then lets them handle calls however they see fit. Result: it has minimal turnover and consistently ranks as one of the best companies for customer service in the US.

Regardless of your role or company policies, you too can look for ways, small and large, to demonstrate free will over what, when and how you do things during your workday. Stuck on an interminable conference call? Tidy the top of your desk. Required to use a particular tracking software? Create your own system for collecting and inputting the data.

Brainstorm a plan of action

It’s easier to take action than it is to change your emotions. (Go ahead, try to make yourself cry; now lift your arm — which is easier? ;-). And there is always – always! — something you can do. When I’m feeling stuck or out of control, I take out a piece of paper and make an “All The Things I Haven’t Tried Yet” list. Seeing all the options in front of me in black and white never fails to give me a sense of control.

What strategies have you come up with to feel like you’re in control?


  1. Rose de Fremery September 26, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    I’m a big fan of brainstorming a plan of action. What usually helps is finding a change of scenery (for me that’s a coffee shop or creative working space), unplugging from the usual routine, and then doing a brain dump–on a piece of paper or in a Word file–of all the things I want to do. There’s usually no shortage of those. Remembering that there are plenty of resources and paths available to me is half the battle, and from there the whole transitory feeling of a lack of autonomy melts away pretty quickly. I try to knock off at least one or two doable action items from such a list on the day I write it. That simple, short practice has led to some amazing opportunities and I highly recommend it as a strategy for responding to stressful situations.


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