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Four positive ways to channel frustration at work

None of us is immune to occasionally feeling frustrated at work. Whether the cause is under-recognition, a decision we disagree with, an interpersonal conflict or poor leadership, managing frustration at work is all too often part of the job.

For those of us managing chronic illness or mental health symptoms on top of a full time job, dealing with day-to-day work stress can be even more taxing.

A light wood desk with a Mac keyboard, earbuds, a coffee mug and a blank journal page. Photo by Lukas Blazek

The easiest – and often most hazardous – way to manage this frustration is by complaining. During tense seasons at work, it’s tempting to point out how badly everything is going to anyone who will listen.

As cathartic as complaining may seem, expressing blanket dissatisfaction at work rarely creates positive change and often reflects poorly on the complainer. It’s a fast way to demonstrate that you aren’t supportive of your coworkers and aren’t ready for leadership opportunities.

Perhaps most importantly, complaining continues a negative feedback loop of stressful self-talk that keeps us stuck in an unproductive place.

On the other hand, silencing your beliefs will also increase your sense of frustration. Your valuable opinions and ideas deserve an audience. We all want to bring our whole, authentic selves to work each day.

Here are four ways to channel your frustration at work that will demonstrate leadership and hopefully affect positive change. (Note: These suggestions apply to run-of-the-mill work frustrations, NOT harassment or abuse of power.)

1. Ask questions

The most common culprit of frustration that I’ve experienced and witnessed in the workplace is a simple lack of information.

Whether a leader has yet to share a company update with the team, or confidential matters prevent everyone from having access to the same information, it’s possible that your frustration actually has a reasonable explanation.

During your next conversation with your manager, try to approach the conversation without judgement and simply ask whatever question is on your mind. Why was this decision made? What factors affected the outcome? What is your opinion of the decision?

Go into the conversation with a goal of understanding rather than changing the course of events. Listen with compassion and try to put yourself in your leaders’ shoes as you hear the answers. Give yourself some time after the conversation to contemplate what you’ve learned and see how your perspective may shift.

Learning to ask the right questions before jumping to a conclusion can save a great deal of frustration at work from occurring in the first place.

2. Offer Feedback

In other circumstances, you may have specific feedback to offer your manager. Great managers are eager to hear feedback from their teammates and appreciate the courage and intelligence required to offer it.

In a private conversation, start by asking her or him, “Would you be open to some feedback?” This gives your manager a chance to consent and prepare for the conversation. When it comes to feedback, no one likes to be caught off guard.

Then offer a single piece of feedback that you believe will truly serve your manager. Offering too much feedback at once will overwhelm the conversation and borders on complaining. But offering a single piece of thoughtful feedback is more likely to be well received and actually make an impact.

Delivering meaningful feedback to your manager demonstrates not only your commitment to your job, but also your commitment to serving your manager in their role. Developing this type of influence can serve both of your careers in the long run.

3. Vent

Sometimes we all just need to vent for a few minutes! Whereas complaining sends the signal that you want someone to make your problem go away, venting is the therapeutic exercise of talking out your frustration. Venting can actually create connection by allowing one or both people to share their honest experiences in the privacy of a 1:1 conversation.

It’s completely acceptable to lean on your manager to get some things off your chest when you need to. In fact, it’s often a better choice to vent to your manager or someone higher in the company rather than a peer or direct report.

Preface the conversation with the question, “It’s been a tough week so far. Would you mind if I just vent for a few minutes?”. This demonstrates that you don’t have any expectations of your manager except for a listening ear.

Try to contain your venting to only a portion of your meeting time. And don’t get in the habit of venting on a weekly basis, as that’s sure to lead to a negative dynamic.

4. Influence the situation

Another way to approach a problem at work is to consider how you could have a direct and positive influence on the situation. Maybe a teammate is floundering under too much work or maybe no one is paying attention to the problem at all. These can be great opportunities to sign up for the work yourself and demonstrate what you’re capable of.

In most workplaces, you’ll need to speak with your manager (or another manager) to make a case for yourself and the project. During this conversation, it’s crucially important that you do not complain or point fingers! It won’t be necessary. This is a moment for you to show empathy and offer to help.

By positioning yourself as someone who can navigate the situation and provide resolution to an important problem, you’ll likely earn more responsibility and gain the chance to make an even bigger impact.

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