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Dealing with Frustration in the Workplace

Inevitably, even if we work for ourselves, we get frustrated with our workplace. This is true of all aspects of life, but since we spend so much time at work, it is an area where we tend to see a lot of frustration. I used to get worked up over things that frustrated me at work. Over time I've done a better job of handling the frustrations and not letting them affect me as much. Quite simply, I was allowing the frustrations to cause me stress, to affect my state of well being, and even to affect my health. Now, my current co-workers will be the first to tell you that sometimes frustrations still get to me. However, those who have worked with me over three or more years can attest to the fact that I've made a lot of progress in this area. Here's what I've learned.

Take Time to Cool Down:

This is one of the first rules I apply, because we tend to do rash things when we're upset and angry. This isn't a good thing. It means we've suspended our logic at least partially and doing something in anger may lead to regret when we've calmed down. So when I get worked up about something, before taking any sort of action, I try and cool down first. This simple first step has helped me countless times. While it may be an obvious first step, unless you're a "calm by nature" person, it can be one of the hardest to actually do.

Determine How Significant the Frustration Is:

Are we talking a major issue here or something relatively minor? For instance, if your coworker is eating a meal at his or her desk that you really can't stand the smell of, but it's a one time occurrence, it's probably something to just let go of. Then again, if your work is asking you to do something that you feel is a violation of your ethics, that's a whole different story. And this is one of the reasons it's so important to take time to cool down. Because if we do, then we can consider the significance of the irritation more clearly. If the problem is a really small one, or is one we can live with as long as it isn't a regular thing, then we let it go and we move on. On the other hand, if it's a big problem, or one that is big enough because it's regular, then we likely need to take some sort of action.

Determine the Options Available:

You always have options. You may not like your options, but you always have them. For instance, most people have the option of saying goodbye to a job. US military folks may not if they have a service commitment remaining. While you may not like that option, it's still an option. The key here is to consider all available options that make sense to address the situation. Quitting your job isn't the right first course of action to deal with a co-worker who continually likes to play loud music from his cube. However, a quick talk with him is, with an escalation plan in case that doesn't work. When you're determining your options, it's also important to determine (as best as you can) the consequences of your actions. For instance, if saying goodbye to your job means having no income with nothing in the bank and the rent due, that's probably not the option you want to execute on. However, that situation may look very good compared to being forced to compromise your ethics. The key is to understand what's likely to happen when you make certain choices and ensuring you can live with those consequences.

Get a Second Opinion:

I have a couple of co-workers who I trust to discuss things with when I am frustrated over something work related. One is older than me and he's seen a lot in his IT career. Another is younger but he's more frugally minded and truth be told, he is a better planner than I am. They both understand my perspective on most things and they know my family and the types of responsibilities I carry. They are also two people I trust. Therefore, they make the perfect confidants when I've got a serious frustration that I want to deal with. They'll listen and if that's all I need, that's where it stops. We call these kinds of people "friends" and everyone should have some. They will also give me advice, to the best of their ability, when I ask for it. And, as true friends, if they think I'm overblowing something or I'm mistaken, they'll call me on it. After all, they're my friends and they care about me. Sometimes being a friend is taking the hit and telling your friend something he or she doesn't want to hear.

Because these guys are willing to do this, because they care about me that much, if it's a big enough frustration to worry about, before I take action I try and talk with them first. If  I'm mistaken in my thinking or if I'm not seeing things clearly, I'll likely hear that from them. They help me avoid situations where I'm about to do something stupid. We can all benefit from that.

Try the Least Impactful Option First:

For instance, I can remember a case where my boss in the US Air Force gave me an order which would have meant I would have violated a Major Command (MAJCOM) Instruction. Probably the most extreme option was to go to the Inspector General (IG) for the base and report the issue. However, I suspected that my boss didn't know the MAJCOM instruction. He was civil service and while he was familiar with a lot of the military instructions, as anyone in the US military will tell you, there are so many instructions it's a wonder we ever got anything done. The least impactful option was to print out the appropriate part of the instruction and go have a conversation with him. So that's what I did. When he realized that what he asked for was in violation, he was apologetic and rescinded the request. I try never to assume maliciousness when ignorance is a possibility. A lot of times I have found that my frustration over something is because the other person didn't realize he or she was doing something that was irritating or offending. By taking the time to have a quick conversation, friendly and polite, I've solved a lot of frustrations without conflict or any further incident. Once the other person is made aware of the impact they are having, most have been quick to make changes because irritating someone else was never their intent.

If It's Important, Be Willing to Escalate:

If the frustration is that big a deal to you, be willing to escalate if the least impactful option(s) don't work. For instance, you've gone and talked to that co-worker about the music and it hasn't helped. The next step would be to approach his or her manager. Are you willing to do that and get your co-worker in trouble? Is it that big a frustration to you? That's an important question. Perhaps you're willing to take certain actions to get rid of an irritation but after a certain point, you're not, because the consequences are too grave. The catch here is to think logically about that. If it's something you can live with but you're willing to try a few things to remedy it, that's one thing. But if it's serious enough to bother you beyond that, then you need to be willing to escalate. Yes, that may take you into territory that you didn't want to go. Make sure that you're willing to go there if you have to. If it's important, stick to it. Don't let fear stop you. Otherwise, you will continue to be miserable, you'll feel more and more stress, and you'll become less and less productive. That hurts everyone, but especially you. By the way, it's never wrong to go back and talk to the folks who gave you a second opinion. Make sure that if you're going to take an option with signficant consequences, that you've worked it through. Things may have changed a bit and you might not even be aware of it. Those other viewpoints and voices may help you realize that.

Your Work Doesn't Define You:

Or at least, it shouldn't. Your work should be important to you. It's something you should be passionate about. But at the end of the day, a job is a job and it's not you. We often refer to ourselves by our jobs. "Hi, I'm a DBA and a junior high youth pastor." We do that because it carries certain stereotypes about those positions so that others have an idea of who we are, what we care about, and what we think like. Those are just stereotypes, though. You are more than those stereotypes. Therefore, your work doesn't define you. So don't let a frustration at work consume you.

K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Jason Brimhall on 11 May 2011

Excellent tips.  Thanks.  I think all of us could use these tips from time to time.

Posted by Roy Ernest on 13 May 2011

I have been guilty of reacting at the spur of the moment. I have broken key boards, thrown stuff on the wall when I got really angry. I am not proud of what I did. I should not have done that. I got so angry because of a stupidity from one of the admins. He took the drive down where I was hosting my Backups while it was restoring the warm stand by. We lost all the back ups.

I dont do that anymore. When I am pissed off, I take a walk to the back of our office building. We are right beside the beach. I sit there till I am calm before coming back in.

I also ask my colleagues to read the email that I write when I am frustrated.

Posted by Stephanie J Brown on 16 May 2011

Roy makes another good point - if you're writing an email about something that frustrates you, have a trusted co-worker read it before you click SEND.  They can give you feedback on whether you've been clear and appropriate in the communication.

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