In my professional travels, I encounter a large number of individuals who express extreme frustration with their working lives. Many of them admit this state of unsettledness creeps into their personal lives, sowing stress and strain along the way.

Through conversations, I learn that much of the frustration people describe emanates from a sense of powerlessness they feel over daily activities and interactions. A demanding boss, challenging coworkers, or a toxic working environment all contribute to their daily struggles.

The situations I encounter often sound a lot like what clinicians might describe as learned-helplessness. Over time and after repeated negative experiences, people come to believe they are powerless to alter circumstances and develop a sense of malaise, or worse yet, they grow depressed. (Note: anyone struggling with feelings of depression is encouraged to seek help from a trained professional.)

Examples in Reframing and Acting Differently to Combat Powerlessness

While some situations are generally rotten, in many instances, it is possible to counteract a sense of powerlessness by reframing your situation and acting differently. For some, it’s recognizing they own their attitude—not someone else—and then uncovering approaches to neutralize or eliminate the stressful circumstances. 

The Micro-Managing Boss

For one client dealing with a demanding and micro-managing boss, a shift in approach ultimately changed the situation for the better. The individual counteracted the micro-managing by proactively over-communicating what he was doing to the boss.

Effectively, he started micro-communicating with the boss, increasing the number of their interactions, and filling the boss’s need for a constant flow of information. Over time, the boss grew a bit more comfortable with this individual’s work, and the two started talking about more significant issues. Trust emerged—albeit slowly—and the nature of the relationship evolved permanently for the better.

The Difficult Coworker

In another situation, a manager had reached the boiling-over point with two of his team members—both extremely competent contributors—when they failed to work together on an important project.

After interviewing them both, it was apparent trust was nowhere to be found and that both had effectively given up on ever working with the other. “She’s impossible,” offered one. “I’ve tried for two years to build a bridge, and I get nothing in return but grief,” he added.

The other individual offered, “He’s always trying to change the way I do things here. I’m not interested in him telling me how to do my job,” she added.

I needed to break the logjam between the two. One of the individuals was slightly more motivated than the other to find a way forward for the sake of the firm and his job performance. I encouraged him to tackle this dilemma by assessing his coworker’s situation from some different angles and then design the right approach. I asked him to think through some important questions about his colleague’s situation:

  • What was the coworker’s status in the firm? What were they under pressure to deliver? What was their typical day like?
  • What might his coworker’s priorities in her work be?
  • What goals and hopes might she have for her future position?
  • What was the backstory on this coworker and the path she took to her current role?
  • What was it she might value from others when collaborating?
  • What was her working style?
  • How might he have rubbed his coworker the wrong way with his approach to trying to work together?

While that might seem like a lot to consider, it’s imperative to see situations through the eyes of the other party.

Ultimately, we worked on an approach that focused on displaying maximum empathy in an attempt to find a crack in the ice. He effectively apologized for his prior approaches to working together and then offered one of my favorite lines, “I imagine it must be difficult to be you in your role.” (Thanks, Dr. Goulston!)

As his coworker’s defenses came down, the discussion shifted to finding a way that helped both of them support the firm by working together. While they took a pass on the best-friends-forever stage, they found a way forward that worked for each of them.

It took work, some counter-intuitive thinking and acting, a humbling approach, and a needed ice-breaking session to change the dynamics. They turned a situation they felt powerless to affect into one where they both had the power they needed to work together.

Five Ideas to Help You Regain Some Control at Work

1. Reframe Your View of the Situation

Recognize that for every situation you feel powerless to change, there’s likely something you can do to influence it on your terms. The challenge is identifying approaches and then trying them out for results. One technique I encourage clients to use is “reframing.” Instead of viewing your situation through a negative lens, shift the frame and describe it as an opportunity and then identify ways to realize the opportunity. This simple shift in thinking often leads to new ideas and approaches and pushes that sense of helplessness out of the way. 

2. Create Your Own Clarity

If you’re stressed over an ambiguous job and unclear expectations, define your role and communicate what they can expect from you. The employee who waits for clarity from the boss might be in for a long wait. I encourage this minor power assertion in situations of rapid change where boundaries and responsibilities are fluid. While it’s frustrating to not know exactly what you are accountable for and where your authority starts and ends, it’s liberating to define your own role. You might gain some pushback at some point, however, that’s better than falling victim to malaise due to the ambiguity. 

3. Find the Loose Brick for Difficult People

I love Keith Ferrazzi’s statement, “If someone is a brick wall, you’ve got to find the loose brick.” Most often, I’ve found that loose brick by doing my homework on the individual as described above. The more I understand about them, their goals, motivations, backstory, and the currencies that might work with them, the easier it is to locate that opening. When you approach, your turbo-charged empathy is essential for success.

4. Words Matter: You’ll Go as Far as You Can Communicate

Words matter. Nearly every difficult situation can be remedied by finding the right way to engage with someone. Spend time learning to design your messages and approach with the other party in mind. Most of us lead with our issues and needs, and that style creates friction and dulls the signal-to-noise ratio.

5. Trade With The Right Currencies

Gaining support and action from someone you’ve been struggling to work with requires all of the above, plus an understanding of the currencies they value at work. Some individuals appreciate resources, visibility, access to those in power, or forwarding organizational goals. Make sure to assess and trade in a currency meaningful to the other party.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Moving from powerlessness to feeling empowered starts with a mindset shift. Somehow, you need to shift out of the spiral of helplessness and assert yourself. Yes, easy words. However, each of us has the opportunity to choose our attitude as well as how we engage with others. If the engagement isn’t going great, change how you play the game. Experiment, iterate and be the smarter person.

Smarter usually starts in these workplace situations by recognizing you need to navigate in the world they see, not the one you see. While an exit stage right better solves some situations, if you like more about your firm and work than you don’t, take back your power!

Art's Signature