Workplace Emotional Traps, Part I: Reactions and Boundaries

As much as we hate to admit it, if we’re honest with ourselves we can probably all admit there’s at least one person at work that just drives you crazy. There might even be several. Hopefully none of them are your boss or immediate supervisor, but that happens all too often as well. In a way, how could we expect it to be any different when we take a bunch of different people and make them spend eight or more hours a day together in this strange place we call an office? You probably dream about how much better life would be if these irritating people suddenly just disappeared, perhaps by being abducted by aliens. Unfortunately, they’re probably not going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s better to learn how to deal with them. Yes, they rattle your cage and can throw your whole day off, but there are things you can do, and that’s what this four-part Workplace Emotional Traps series of articles is all about. The series is based on the book Working with You is Killing Me by Harvard-trained psychologist Katherine Crowley and renowned business strategist Kathi Elster. Here’s the roadmap of where we’re going on this journey through our crazy workplaces:

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Part I: Changing Your Reactions and Setting Boundaries. It’s important to see how you sometimes make these situations worse as well as “unhook” from them so you don’t get as upset. There will also always be people who cross all kinds of personal boundaries, but you can learn to protect yourself from them.

Part II: Constraining Roles and Soured Relationships. If you find yourself constantly caught in roles you don’t really like, that’s something you can change, as well as those relationships that start off great but quickly devolve into something more like nightmares.

Part III: Managing Up and Crazy Bosses. There are things you can do to take better charge of relationships with supervisors and managers, and even the scariest of them all – out of control bosses.

Part IV: Managing Down and Ultimate Choices. If you’re in a supervisory or managerial position, there are plenty of things you can do to deal with even the most difficult of employees. Ultimately, however, you have to engage a process for determining if you’re in the right workplace to begin with.

Changing Your Reactions

So what do you do when that annoying coworker does their usual thing, like taking credit for something you did, or dumping yet another project in your lap, or fails to do their piece of a team project? When you feel that negative reaction swelling up inside you, before it comes exploding out, what you need to do is change your reaction by unhooking physically, mentally, verbally, and even with a business tool. Physical unhooking involves calming yourself down with deep breathing and other quick meditative and relaxation techniques. Mental unhooking involves pausing long enough to run through a quick mental analysis exercise, asking yourself what’s happening, what are the facts, what’s the other person’s part, what’s your part (this often involves taking things way too personally), and what are your options to respond. Verbally unhooking means saying something that avoids pettiness but expresses something relevant in a non-judgmental kind of way. This might be something like, “How are we going to solve this problem” or “How can I help you make this happen so the project can move forward?” Notice how it’s not about placing blame or name-calling, it’s about getting to a solution, including your own willingness to work on it. Unhooking with a business tool might involve addressing an employee’s sloppy work habits by referring to the job description, making sure performance standards are in place related to it, and so on. What you’re doing is transforming the situation from an emotional tinderbox into a business situation that can be addressed with business tools.

Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

Everyone has different boundaries, which makes boundary conflicts at work inevitable. A boss handing you a task to complete 30 minutes before you leave is fine to him but feels like an infringement to you. One person may naturally listen in on phone conversations around him while you think it’s an invasion of privacy. One person may go into great details about their romantic escapades whereas you think getting that personal should be off-limits at work. Here’s the thing to remember about boundaries: Know one can know yours unless you let them know what they are! Rather than letting your boundaries be violated time and time again until you get so frustrated you lash out in anger, just calmly and clearly let that person know about the boundary for the future.

The two simple strategies presented above – unhooking when your coworkers are driving your crazy and clearly communicating your boundaries – can go a long way towards making your work life a whole lot better. Part II of this series will dive right into constraining roles and soured relationships.

August 13, 2015   Updated :August 13, 2015   culutre; emotional traps   

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