On any given weekday, we spend more time working than we do engaged in any other activity, even sleeping. That is reason enough to eliminate sources of workplace stress and misery. As a coach and trusted adviser to executives and managers across various industries – from corporate and association to government and military – I’ve observed that people often make misery for themselves at work. I think it’s time to change that.
Read this list of seven ways you may be making yourself miserable in the workplace, but be sure to focus on the solutions to see what you can do to dramatically improve your life at work. Much of this is common sense; the trouble is that we often fail to act on the things we know we should do. Decide now to make these valuable changes, follow through, and I think you will be surprised by the results.
1. Meddling in the “How.” Sometimes when we do not have the right team in place or we are worried about an activity, project, or program, we start to meddle and micromanage. We dictate the way we want things to be done. When we do that, we make ourselves, and others, miserable. Micromanaging disables others, and it causes people to back off and implement our directives like robots. As a result, we lose out on their creativity, ingenuity, and responsibility. In the long run, this costs us dearly and increases our misery immeasurably. When we dictate the “how,” we build a team or an organization that is completely dependent on us. Think about this. Can you take a vacation without checking up on things? If you cannot, that is a sure sign of this misery maker.
The solution is simple (though not necessarily easy): Assess the situation. Evaluate whether you are making matters worse. Hold your direct reports accountable for results; don’t tell them how to get the results. If they’re not getting the job done satisfactorily, make some changes. Remember: problems left alone tend to get worse, not better. Hire and surround yourself with the best people and then give them the guidance and tools so they can do what needs to be done.
2. Venting to the Wrong People. As leaders, we should not be venting to direct reports and others in the workplace. The old saying is true though: It’s lonely at the top. That is why it can be easy to fall into this trap. The trouble is that when we vent, we infect others with our way of thinking, which can, in turn, make matters even worse. For example, let us say we are upset with a goal we consider to be unreachable. If we show that feeling to folks who report to us, their feelings will be affected, which will affect the actions they take on a daily basis. Pretty soon we will have multiplied our difficulties, and the goal we thought was unreachable truly will be a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.
This problem is not hard to solve. First, think of negative feelings and thoughts as if they were germs that can infect others. We may get over the infection, but when we spread it to others, they may never recover. Second, vent to the appropriate people– whether it is a coach, a peer, a friend or, if appropriate, your boss. Find someone who can listen objectively (without being negatively affected by your words) and give you some guidance. The value of a trusted adviser or coach cannot be overestimated.
3. Neglecting the Power of Expectations. People like a certain level of security. They want to know the guidelines, what they can affect vs. what they cannot affect and just need to live with. They also want to know what they can count on to stay the same vs. what could possibly change. In other words, they need to know what is negotiable vs. what is non-negotiable. When leaders neglect to manage expectations, it can lead to a lot of frustration and wasted time throughout the organization. That leads to misery for everyone, especially for you. How much time do you spend each week fielding complaints about policies and procedures that make people’s jobs difficult but are not going to change? Frustrating, right?
The solution is to spell out what is non-negotiable and unlikely to change vs. what is negotiable and open to change. This is true on the broad organizational level as well as for teams or special projects. In setting others’ expectations about what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable, you are freeing them to focus on what is truly within their control (and as a result you should have fewer complaints to listen to). One of the most frequent negotiable vs. non-negotiable issues I encounter is in the realm of roles and responsibilities. (In all my years of doing this, I have yet to see an organization with roles and responsibilities clearly defined so everyone understands. Maybe it is time to reset the expectations.) If the roles and responsibilities are unclear for your team or in your organization, you can even let the people know that you understand that they are unclear, draw some guidelines, and then reset the expectations so that the people understand that you expect them to take initiative within those guidelines and be open to ongoing change.
As a leader, you already know you have to focus on what you can control and mentally and emotionally let go of everything that you cannot. But by helping your direct reports understand what is not within their control (in other words, setting their expectations) and encouraging them to give 100 percent of their attention to what is within their control, you increase their efficiency and reduce their stress level considerably. That is a win-win for them and for you.
4. Lying to Yourself. The worst lies we ever tell are the lies that we tell ourselves. Those lies often take the form of outright denial, and that is what makes them so dangerous. Sometimes leaders make their lives miserable because they choose not to look at the reality of a situation and make the hard changes. For instance, maybe someone is being difficult and not getting the job done. If you avoid that reality, then you are making yourself (and others!) miserable. Perhaps that person needs to be let go, or maybe they need to be moved to another position where they can be more effective. Sometimes we lie to ourselves about our products and services. Maybe they have passed the expiration date and need to change. Lying to yourself about that will only lead to more misery in the long run.
The solution here is to look at what you’re avoiding. Set aside thirty minutes to think about what hard truths you have been sidestepping. What person do you avoid in the hallway? What don’t you want to talk about? What situation makes you groan inwardly? Look at those things head on and identify what lies you have been telling yourself. Tell the truth to yourself; then for each truth, write down a step you can take to deal with each situation you’ve been avoiding. It may not be easy, but you will be a lot less miserable when you’ve dealt with all the issues that have been haunting you. I bet that you will be surprised at how much more optimistic and energetic you feel once you stop lying to yourself.
5. The “Yes” Team. Hiring and surrounding ourselves with people we like and who think like we do is a common leadership issue. Organizations have a tendency to hire people who “who have the corporate mentality,” and unfortunately get rid of people who are different. This problem is a tricky one because a corporate mentality is good. You want people who buy into the corporate vision. But if you have ever heard me speak or have read my books, you know the trouble comes when no one will challenge the status quo or speak the hard truths. Here are two questions you should ask yourself to determine whether you are surrounded by “yes” people: How often do people argue and debate you and others? How often are people presenting new ideas? If the answer to the second question is “not often,” then you may have created an environment where a train wreck is lurking around the corner. This is a silent killer because the work environment may not feel miserable; but when the train wreck takes you by surprise, then there will be plenty of misery to go around.
The key to eliminating this source of misery is to make room for debate and differences. Only by encouraging people to tell the hard truths and not marginalizing those who see things differently can we avoid ugly surprises. It may feel uncomfortable to hear the hard truths, but the reward is rich. You will be able to steer your organization effectively and avoid being derailed. Adopt the slogan “No surprises.”
6. Too Many Priorities. Leaders sometimes mistakenly believe that it is beneficial to have many priorities. In reality, multiple priorities confuse people and often cause them to freeze and avoid taking action. The other possibility is that they will choose what they think are the top priorities and act on them. When they choose the wrong priorities, it causes organization misalignment. This is a common source of misery for managers, but it does not have to be.
A simple solution to this problem is to ask your direct reports to write down their top 5 job priorities and turn them in to you. (They should write them in priority order.) Let them know this is not a test of them, but a test of you and how consistent and clear the organization is. Obviously this exercise will reveal how clear folks are on their priorities, but it will also help you see how to provide the necessary clarity. The end result will be greater efficiency, which always alleviates misery and stress. We all have 24 hours in a day. The key is to focus on the ROI on our activities.
7. Focusing on Overcoming Weaknesses. People spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix their perceived weaknesses, and it is a huge time waster. It’s also the source of a lot of misery. When you spend a lot of time focusing on what you perceive to be shortcomings, you are also spending a lot of time trapped in negative thinking about yourself. At the same time, you are closing yourself off to finding genuine solutions.
You can reduce your misery by embracing who you are and acknowledging your strengths, and by surrounding yourself with people who are strong in the areas in which you are weak. We do not have to have all the ingredients; we just have to make sure that we have all the ingredients covered. For example, if you are great in operations but you know that someone on your team has more expertise and experience with creating a big picture vision, allow that person to take advantage of his or her skill set while you focus on your own. Great leaders know how to use their own traits effectively and help others recognize and make the most of their traits in order to produce the desired outcomes.
Take this article, share it with others, and ask them what they think. Use it as a topic of conversation at your next staff meeting or off-site. In doing so, perhaps you will uncover more sources of misery in the workplace and how to turn them around. If you do, I’d love to hear your feedback. As always, call me if you need any help.
Remember: life is short: enjoy it!