As the economy has continued to sputter, many of us have seen a decline in the quality of our work life. Maybe the company hasn't been doing well, or there have been layoffs or restructurings. Maybe all of those things are happening, or there's just a sense of our employer losing its mojo, the swagger and confidence it once had.
On the one hand, we're struggling with these changes. On the other, we feel lucky to have a job, and might feel powerless to challenge what clearly have become difficulties. When that happens, the uncertainty of the future, and our own apparent lack of control, hits us harder than usual. This is an opportunity.
When we're uncertain, we can become afraid, tentative. We can treat people differently that we usually do. We can retreat into a shell, hoping to get some kind of protection. Fear can lead us toward all sorts of nasty things that we think are helping, but are actually having the opposite effect.
It can be helpful to notice our own reactions in these times. Are we feeling like running away? Are we snippy and defensive? Do we feel helpless? What other things show up for us?
Here are four things to do more of when times are difficult at work.
1. Stop. Take a breath. The purpose of this is not to stop working or to escape. Instead, it's to interrupt the pattern that we're frustrated with, whether that's anger or escape. Every time we catch ourselves is a victory. And even if we miss one or two (and we will), we're no worse off than we were before.
2. Look. Take a close look at what is happening in that moment. It's easy to say an entire environment is toxic, but is it really that? Or is it one or two people, or one or two situations, that cause problems for you?
3. Listen. What are your thoughts about the situation? What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? If you hear as story that "this company's going down the toilet," for example, is that really true? If you're thinking "I can't lose my job, I'll starve," can you see that's probably not true? Whatever your thoughts, what are the two or three facts that are leading you to think that? Are there different interpretations of those facts? Are there other facts that might suggest a different conclusion?
4. Choose. Given what you're observing, both about yourself and the situation, what's the best response? It may not be what you have instinctively done in the past. You may not be able to choose your thoughts, but with some effort, you can decide to respond to them differently.
Maybe you could apologize to a person for being cranky or stressed with her. Maybe you can notice that another person seems to be struggling. "You seem to be frustrated right now," can open up an opportunity to deal with some of the feelings that arise.
It may be difficult to do this at first. But stepping into a position of vulnerability can create a sense of profound connection with the other person. And we can discover that while we may have different interpretations of what's happening, we're not in opposition.
Certainly, one way of thinking about a toxic work environment is as a burden to be overcome. But another, maybe just as powerful, is to see it as an opportunity for practice.
I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
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