When I talk with clients who are mired in such confusing work scenarios, I'm guided by these questions as I listen to their stories:
First, “What's real here, and what's not real?” I look for a sense of perspective by asking if others have expressed the same concerns, if there are other interpretations possible, and if they have anything more than intuition to verify what's happening.
At the same time, I'm listening for clues to this question: “What needs attention here, and what might suffer from getting too much attention?” In other words, could the worker either be ignoring a signal that needs heeding, or over-responding to something that would best be left to die down?
Finally, I'm hoping we can answer this question: “Is this person's fear protective or is it holding him/her back?” As everyone knows, fear is an important impulse, telling us to jump back from falling pianos. But the fear stops being helpful if it means walking down the street with your head tipped back, expecting a piano to fall from every terrace.
Assuming one can identify an issue to resolve, the problem-solving question becomes: “What can I do about this?”
One option is to take the direct approach.
A direct conversation can sometimes resolve the issue in moments. This might work when you feel a boss or colleague has been cool to you, holding back on assignments or praise they would normally give. You might simply ask, “Has anything changed in your confidence in my work? I feel as if you've been holding back lately. I want to know, so that I can work on whatever it is that might be bothering you.”
If you initiate the conversation, remember that the problem might be something you can fix, or it might not be about you at all.
To ease your fears, but also to prepare yourself for the worst, you may need to take some steps.
1. Seek an outside perspective.
2. Evaluate the worst-case scenario and decide what you can do to prevent it. If there's nothing you can do, then determine how you can prepare yourself to survive it. Answers might include building a financial reserve, taking a part-time job to cushion a possible layoff, networking to improve your chances of switching jobs on short notice, etc.
3. Update your resume and copy your contact list from your company cellphone or computer
4. Once these steps are finished, stop dwelling on the situation. Additional ruminating will only imperil your peace of mind.