People at every level of work often ask how to cope with frustrations they feel sometimes to the point of despair. Some days it seems there isn’t a sane boss or co-worker anywhere. If it helps to know you aren’t alone, I can certainly reassure you. Not only do I have my own moments of despair (and I’m the only boss I have to blame for that), but being in the leadership coaching business, I hear this constantly from every direction. Unfortunately it’s part of humans working together.
People need to vent. It helps to have someone just listen. Often this can’t be a spouse because it causes them too much worry and they usually just want to convince you things aren’t so bad. Co-workers may cause problems, too, by gossiping about your venting. With splintered families and social relationships there are fewer listeners. A non-work friend or coach is definitely a better choice, but they in turn need to learn coping skills to handle the deluge that usually arrives.
Venting is healthy – to a point. When it goes over the same ground too many times and becomes circular, it’s just more worry. You need to break off the conversation and come back later. Once the person is stuck in the rut, they can’t and won’t let go. They just want your commiseration at that stage.
When you pick things up later, a technique called reframing helps. First, see the challenge differently – it’s a learning opportunity. You’re going to encounter many others like the person now causing grief. If you can learn to handle this one, you’ll be far less likely to reach this awful level of despair next time… so can we move from that to get focused on strategies for coping and improving the situation?
Examples might help.
Recently a friend told me how he’d actually jeopardized his career because he was so frustrated with his boss. He’s in charge of quality improvement and needed the boss’ support to insist other managers follow the process he’d designed. The boss kept advising to cool things off, but my friend is evaluated on results and there weren’t going to be any unless people cooperate. In a risky outburst he basically told the boss she wasn’t doing her job and should get off the pot and do it. This resulted in a counter-speech about "catching more flies with honey than vinegar."
Ouch! Listen when you get that comment. The boss is telling you to cool it and they mean it. Further outbursts are definitely likely to be career limiting. A far better solution is to draw the boss in by asking for coaching. Ask how you should approach people, how important it is to get results, what should you do if there aren’t any by year end? This way the boss can solve problems with and for you and can see what you see… that results, which she, too, is ultimately responsible for won’t be easy to get without a better strategy.
Another recent case: a co-worker of a friend was asked to present to a team meeting on my friend’s project (and take credit for work my friend has laboriously achieved in improving relations and results with a difficult client). This capped some obvious prior efforts by the co-worker to get my friend to give her all the information about the project. Was the boss suddenly favoring the co-worker and ignoring my friend and her effort? Well, it didn’t sound like it to me. My friend had opened our conversation by telling me she’d just been given a terrific performance appraisal rating her in the top 10% of all employees… by the same boss.
Once the venting was over (or at least waning), I suggested the boss might see my friend as so superior she was becoming a "fixer" – opening new client relationships, getting them up to speed and then being able to turn them over to a weaker co-worker and take on yet another challenging situation. If that’s true, that’s not only a great compliment, but a major step toward ensuring promotion to more money and responsibility.
Before venting to the boss or complaining, it’s important to seek feedback that could help determine if the better interpretation is or could be in play. Perhaps the boss hasn’t been fully aware that’s what they were doing and how my friend might react. If asked, "is this what you want me to do, train my co-worker," he might leap at saying yes… or at least begin thinking, "that’s not a bad idea," to my friend’s great benefit. Venting could hurt.
Often these useful twists only come to mind after the initial conversation. Both parties have to get out of the rut they set for themselves when they approach the situation with highly emotion. Emotions don’t let go within that first conversation. You need time out. The next day or so is usually soon enough to step back and ask more strategic questions, look at other possible interpretations and where they could take you. You can even go get several opinions (again, ideally from non-work, non-spouse parties). If you ask, "why else might someone have done [whatever it was]," you may be surprised.
Next – what if there isn’t a really good alternative interpretation? Settle on the most positive one you can even it seems far-fetched… and then check it out… doing so may actually help it come about. No single guess may be the best view. It often takes trial and error to work toward something positive, but just the step of coming up with one new idea to try takes a lot of the sting out of the situation and gets you back to driving toward a solution instead of just sympathy.