This has been a challenging time to be in a job. The industry doesn’t really matter, although the industries that I’m close to — housing, multi-family, media, marketing and publishing — have experienced challenges on an order of magnitude that none of us could ever imagine. But for everyone, the work of going to work, doing what you’re asked to do, managing people and dealing with customers is fraught with an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty.

This is at the core of the national mood. A quick look at Gallup’s Economic Averages shows that the suppressed mood of Americans is barely changed from a year ago, despite a perception that the outlook for the job market is somewhat better.

Our day-to-day work life lacks the public and external validation, such as raises, promotions and bonuses, that helped boost our sense of self and well-being. I was reminded of this over the past week as we went through budget reviews at my company, NCI. Our teams have been incredible over the past two years, making balanced decisions about people, products and resources even while the business conditions have deteriorated around them. We’ve preserved our company, have improved our operating abilities and have innovated in exciting and promising ways. As we went through the presentations, I was struck by just how much has been done to define exactly what the benefit of each of our different services is, and to clear away any statement, activity or process that is not critical to delivering that benefit.

I was also struck by how little external reward there is in the current business climate. I can only recognize people and thank them.

But does that recognition have the same value as the more tangible rewards that were readily available in the past?

Maybe it does, if I’m able to be honest and authentic, and if my engagement with others is genuine.

In a reflective blog post this week,  the writer Scott Berkun exemplifies the power of candor.

In a list of his greatest professional mistakes, Berkun shuns cataloging business failures to take stock of  how aspects of his nature have kept him from realizing opportunities for growth.

Not learning to draw. I’m a visual thinker, at least some of the time. When I work with people on anything, I work at whiteboards and on big sheets of paper. But I can’t actually draw with sufficient aesthetics to warrant posting them here, or including them in books. This is a liability. But it’s one I plan to correct this year, as one of my goals for 2010 is to learn to draw. I’m working from Drawing on the Right side of the brain, and it’s going well so far.

The kind of self-awareness and honesty that Berkun promotes in this post is of great value today. In order to achieve a sense of balance, calm and productivity, each one of us can benefit from acceptance of ourselves and our circumstances. In that acceptance we’ll find tremendous opportunity.

I’ve had this conversation with a number of my colleagues over the past couple of years. At the center of rapid change, it is easy to lose your bearings.

As a manager, keeping those bearings is important to helping the people around you. I was reminded of this as I read an article from The Gallup Organization that looked at how to bolster employee confidence during these lean times.

The secret is to take a genuine interest in their future, to help them learn new skills and gain new experiences.

“This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.” Employees’ optimism about their standard of living also rises steadily with their level of agreement that they have opportunities at work to learn and grow. In fact, employees who strongly agreed in early 2009 that they have such opportunities were significantly more likely to feel their standard of living was getting better (50%) than to feel it was getting worse (33%).

The feeling of making progress against the long-term goal of their professional life creates a sense of mastery and confidence that diminishes the short-term discouragements of an adverse business cycle, the Gallup researchers say.

Two important touch points for a challenging time: Accept who you are and take a genuine interest in the people around you. These are enduring truths that are too easy to lose sight of when times are tough. But, these truths are about accepting the human spirit, being humbled by our lives and shedding the illusion that we can control the fates.

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