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Career changes: Life changes: Navigating Transition

11.18.2013

As all executives know, few work experiences are more nerve-wracking than acclimating to one’s first job out of college. This transition, however, is just one of many that a person will undergo over a lifetime, whether those changes are voluntary—switching vocational tracks, perhaps, or staying at home with kids, maybe retiring at the end of a long career—or whether they’re involuntary—like graduating, being laid off, or undergoing forced retirement.

Even if you’re looking forward to the change, a job transition can quickly become one of the most stressful events of your year. In fact, as psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe found, dismissal from a job, entering retirement, switching to a different line of work, and change in responsibilities at the office are amongst the top 25 most taxing events in a person’s life. And, while there are plenty of resources about how to excel in your work performance in a new role (The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter is a firm favorite), little information is readily available to help you manage the stress of a transition.

The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to be prepared for these changes--even if there aren’t many resource guides telling you what to do--and you can still set yourself up to thrive on day one of your work transition. Behind the scenes of career transitions are researchers who study adaptability, or the ability for an individual to be flexible to new environments. Adaptability is critical to people’s satisfaction and performance in any period of change—particularly a career move. How can even the most seasoned executives benefit from what they know about adapting well?

Research, research, research

First, it’s important to get as much background about your transition as possible, so that you can formulate any coping strategies you might find useful in the future. Ask yourself: What will be expected of you? What’s the company culture like? What now-arcane knowledge that you gained in school might you need to brush up on? These questions can be hard to answer--especially for people new to working life-- but they can settle or dismantle your nerves and seriously affect your performance in the first few months.

Before you even begin your new role, find out what will really be expected of you—and I don’t mean a list of job requirements—by networking with new colleagues or other industry professionals, or by finding a mentor who has been in your shoes. Connecting with your future colleagues and learning about the company culture won’t just keep you from sticking out like a sore thumb in your new environment--it will also allow you to start acclimating and getting comfortable with the company before you walk in on your first day.

With any challenging new role comes expertise, which you have to play an active role in building. Learning to adapt by “updating a substantive knowledge base” is one of the best ways to develop adaptive skills in a new environment--so if there’s any reviewing you need to do, do it now! For me, developing a substantive knowledge base meant attending several Saturday seminars before starting a role in which I interact with autistic children every day.

If you’re moving to a new industry, starting your first job, or retiring, you also want to get comfortable with what your new environment will be like. Spend some time before your transition testing the waters and figuring out what your new role entails. Retiring without a clue of what you’ll want to do during the day, for example, is a major pitfall that can lead to unhappiness throughout later life. One of the easiest ways to decrease stress--or avoid it entirely--is to make any new job role seem as if it were part of the way things have always been.

Get to know your colleagues

If you’ve recently landed a new position, it’s likely that networking has played some role in your job change. However, when starting in a new role, it can be easy to get lost concentrating on your work and performing your best and then forget to reach out to new colleagues in the process.

Interacting with others and developing social ties at work goes a long way toward reducing stress; researchers at the University of Zürich discovered that the hormone oxytocin, released with social support, increases calmness and reduces anxiety during stressful situations. Forming allies early on ensures that you’ll have support throughout your tenure with a company and that you’ll have effective working relationships with your colleagues.

Know yourself

Research published last year shows that four traits are critical for managing transitions, new tasks, and new challenges at work: concern, control, curiosity, and confidence. Simply maintaining your sense of control (for example, making decisions by yourself) or confidence (by taking advantage of early small wins, perhaps) can pave the way for your overall satisfaction with a new job. If you feel that you lack one of these aspects—maybe curiosity doesn’t come naturally—use the time before your transition to improve your adaptability.

Of course, performance at work can vary hugely based on your emotional and physical health. Rather than getting lost in the demands of a new role, remember to put forth the effort to make sure you’re not running yourself ragged. Not everyone needs eight hours of sleep every night, but keeping a sleep schedule and being well-rested will ensure you can keep your emotional balance, a key factor in staving off stress. Planning regular breaks throughout your day also makes it easier to keep a clear mind and recharge, rather than allowing yourself to become more stressed and less productive as the day goes on. After work, try to maintain a balanced schedule. Exercise is an especially powerful stress reliever that will also help increase your energy and sharpen your focus throughout the day.

Give it time

It will likely take anywhere from three months to several years for you to really feel settled in a new role, so it’s important to stay motivated by reminding yourself why you’ve made this change. Managing yourself and your own adjustment sets you up to manage the role with comfort and finesse--so be patient and conscientious of the unique challenges of a transition. Before you can bring the most value to your new company or thrive in a new lifestyle, you have to leap over these hurdles of your first months. But if you anticipate the hurdles ahead of time, they won’t seem quite so daunting when you reach them.

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