When we think about improving our relationships, we often focus on our romantic or family relationships, and we leave our work relationships unexamined. That is until something happens. Perhaps we are passed up for a promotion, experience conflict with a colleague, or begin to question our current job situation entirely? The reality is that the dynamics of our work relationships often mirror our personal relationships.
Just like in life, in the workplace it’s inevitable that we will experience people doing things that we don’t understand – things we find annoying, hurtful, frustrating, baffling, infuriating and even totally incomprehensible. And in every workplace, decisions will be made that we may think are unfair, short-sighted, or just plain wrong. We don’t get control over what others do and we don’t always get to make all of the decisions at work, but what we do get to control is how we react and respond.
Understanding our workplace behavior:
As hard as it may be when we experience strong emotions, the first step is to take our focus off of the other person, or off of the decision that has been made, and instead look (honestly) at our own thoughts and behaviors. It’s important to recognize how our personal history and experience influences the way that we perceive and interact with our colleagues, and perhaps even more so with our bosses.
How we handle conflict or disagreements at work very often reflects and repeats how we’ve dealt with conflict in our own families. The family is the original social environment for us. Maybe the ‘leadership’ in the family environment for us was scary or chaotic. Or maybe the leadership in the family was falling apart and we felt like we had to prop up and take care of the leadership. We bring all of this into our adult lives, and into the workplace, and we can often experience the management and leadership at our organizations through that lens.
We will usually have some type of narrative about ourselves and the leadership which goes beyond the particular work situation we’re in at the moment. Some of us may see ourselves as care-takers and help our bosses at our own personal expense. Perhaps we can experience ourselves as in an underground resistance to current management. We also might feel rage at them, or resentment. We might feel an undying love and sort of worship of the leadership too. Whatever our overall narrative and feelings, we will usually experience a range of these things that changes depending on how much validation we’re getting at the moment. Typically, if things are going well, we feel good. It’s when things are not going well, that all of our historical reactions and patterns come roaring to the surface.
Our Automatic Reactions:
It’s helpful to step back and ask ourselves, what are our go-to patterns? What are our reactions and behaviors that maybe we even realize are unhelpful and unproductive but that we find ourselves slipping into? Is it jealousy, envy? Rage? Regret, or worry? A collection of some or all of the above? Perhaps our go-to patterns aren’t even what we would consider to be “negative”? Maybe we take on more work, rescue colleagues, or even “mentor” those who may not be seeking our advice. Perhaps we take on an overbearing sibling role, inserting ourselves into situations between others, feeling like we know what would be best for them? As you think about your patterns in the workplace, you can maybe start to notice where you’ve exhibited these patterns and actions with your parents, your siblings, perhaps even with your own children now.
Once you have your list of go-to patterns, at first it may be painful to look at, especially if you’ve been truly honest in building your list. As best as you can, have compassion for yourself here – everyone struggles internally when it comes to the social groups that they participate in, and the workplace is no different. The point is not to beat yourself up. This is a fantastic starting point from which to grow out of repeating your ingrained patterns and make new choices.
Suggestions for Change & Growth
Although self-awareness is a necessary first step in making meaningful change and improving our relationships, we still need to do the real work to actually change our thought and behavior patterns. Similar to learning and developing a new job skill, we are typically most successful at changing thoughts and behaviors when we set goals and timelines, have a plan, test and challenge ourselves, evaluate our performance, and enlist the help of a teacher, mentor, or expert. If you were learning how to build computer software programs for your job, for example, you’d probably take your learning plan very seriously. And you’d probably accomplish your goal much more quickly and with a greater depth of knowledge if you worked with an expert computer software programmer. Someone who had built thousands of programs before, who knew all the ins and outs, and who could even become your go-to when you needed help with a specific problem or challenge in the future. Learning how to change our thoughts and behaviors, and building our emotional health, is not all that different.
Given that workplace relationships are filled with nuance and complexity, attempting to figure it all out on your own can lead to frustration. Experienced therapists have heard it all and can not only help you deal with your own feelings, but also recommend practical skills for any situation. Many of the smartest and most successful people in the world work with counselors to help them navigate the relationships in their lives.
Focusing on our emotional health and our interpersonal relationships at work takes effort, but there’s nothing more important for long term career fulfillment. Getting projects done, getting validation, getting a promotion, or getting a raise are all wonderful achievements and they all feel good, especially in the moment. However, when we establish and maintain our emotional health, we can not only celebrate and feel genuinely proud of these achievements, but we can also experience an underlying sense of ease and fulfillment. This is the foundation that enables us to be even more capable, and genuinely excited about how we’ll approach what’s next – professionally and personally.
By Steve Shaheen. With contributing Therapist: Chris Kingman, LCSW