If you find yourself banging your head against a wall because the same frustrations repeat on an endless loop in your professional life, it could be time to check in with yourself. Some frustrations are life lessons in disguise!
In the earliest days of my running my business, I remember being fascinated (and horrified) by the black hole into which every proposal seemed to fall. Back then, I’d meet with a leader seeking a program or some consulting. I’d follow up with exactly the proposal they’d requested, and … [insert sound of crickets chirping].
I was so frustrated. Our conversation had made clear that they had a need and I had a solution. And their inability to close the loop was so bleeping frustrating. I’ll confess to having spent a hot few minutes, or maybe months, stewing in my frustration over their failure to respond.
Then, one day my brave husband gently suggested that perhaps I needed to look at how I was contributing to this frustrating outcome.
Ugh. I hate it when he’s right.
What role do you play in your frustration?
As it turned out, I was indeed playing a role in this broken record of frustration. These people were busy doing their day jobs; they weren’t sitting around waiting for my proposals. I realized I needed to sharpen my calls-to-action in my cover notes. I needed to follow up, sometimes three or four times, to land the next meeting.
This reflection was a game-changer for me. I made some tweaks to my approach and, magically, their behavior changed! Suddenly proposals became contracts, which inevitably became a business.
When you’re looking for the reason people around you seem to be denying or ignoring what you’ve said, you may need to look for that answer in the mirror.
Being this brand of reflective—asking ‘What am I doing that’s contributing to this problem?’—can be hard. But in your own moments of repeated frustration, consider what your role might be, and what you can do to change the tape. I'm not talking about one-off frustrations like when your neighbor's landscaper shows up with a leaf blower just as you're about to virtually present a big pitch. I'm talking about those frustrations that seem to rear their heads again and again on an endless loop.
When you’re feeling frustrated on repeat, before you bang your head against the wall, take a pause and reflect. Ask yourself, what is my opportunity to contribute to a different outcome next time?
Here are some surefire places to start.
Make sure you've been clear
When I run programs on effective communication skills, I always include a nod to a favorite quote of mine, often (and probably incorrectly) attributed to George Bernard Shaw:
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
A leader will often say something like “I’ve been telling them for months this change is coming. Why are they surprised?” Or “I’ve explained how I want my team to engage with customers. Why are they still doing it wrong?” When you’re looking for the reason people around you seem to be denying or ignoring what you’ve said, you may need to look for that answer in the mirror.
I know what you think you’ve said. But have you checked on what is being heard?
Maybe you manage a product, and you’ve told marketing a hundred times that you’d like them to change how they’re positioning the product in their communications. But they’re still doing it the old way, and you’re frustrated!
Now’s the time to check in with marketing. What have they heard?
- Do they understand the problem with their current positioning?
- Have you been specific enough about the differences you want to see?
- Have you provided an example for them to follow?
Anytime it feels like someone is ignoring a request or direction, pause to check on how clear you’ve really been.
State your boundaries so you can protect them
Your boss tends to call you most days around noon. Or you’re finding yourself in too many 7 a.m. meetings. Or you keep getting put onto committees that are doing important things, but you’re totally overwhelmed. And you’re just so frustrated.
Don't your colleagues know you've got zero bandwidth for another committee? In short—no, they don't.
Doesn’t your boss know that noon is when you’re feeding your little homeschoolers lunch? Don’t your colleagues realize that 7 a.m. is your only quiet hour, which you use to read, meditate, or exercise? Don’t they know you’ve got zero bandwidth for another committee?
In short—no, they don't. And you’ve got to tell them. You need to state a boundary and hold people accountable.
Your boss just wants to see how you’re doing, and he figured noon was convenient because meetings aren’t happening. Your colleagues are just looking for open windows on your calendar and 7 a.m. always seems free. And those committees? Well, each committee leader is looking for your expertise, but none of them have a way of knowing how many other committees you’re already sitting on.
Always assume positive intent: No one is trying to inconvenience or overwhelm you.
Let people know what works for you. And hold them accountable while also being flexible. Your boss needs to know noon isn’t great, but in an emergency, you’ll pick up if he calls. Block out 7-8 a.m. on your calendar. You can be flexible without yielding that hour completely. Choose a committee or two to support, and then let the rest know you’re happy to advise from afar.
It's up to you to be clear about your boundaries so you can defend them when they're being infringed upon.
You’re the only one who knows what you need. It's up to you to protect your time and energy. Be clear about your boundaries so you can defend them when they're being infringed upon.
Spot the patterns and make a plan
I once spoke at a conference for summer camp directors. I asked about their biggest challenges. One director described her frustration with counselors resigning just days before the start of the summer. Immediately everyone around her nodded in agreement.
“Is this a challenge all of you experience?” I asked. Hard nods. “Does it happen every year?” Harder nods.
“Then let’s plan for it!”
Anticipate what’s coming and plan for it.
Whether you’re a teacher or an accountant or a retailer, all of us experience some kind of seasonality in our professional lives. There are patterns that may be frustrating, but they’re also predictable. So anticipate what’s coming and plan for it.
I led the camp directors through a discussion about hiring more staff than needed so they had reserves to help manage last-minute resignations. They discussed sharing staff across camps local to each other. And by spotting the pattern and planning for it, the camp directors were able to come to even more proactive solutions to their problem.
Now it’s your turn. What frustrating things happen like clockwork for you—in a season, at a time of day, or after each big pitch or product launch? Anticipate what’s coming and have a mitigation plan in place.
Role model the results you're looking for
In my business I do a fair amount of outsourcing. When it comes to legal or accounting work, where I’m not the expert, I defer to my lawyer and accountant completely. But sometimes I outsource stuff that I could do myself—things like developing slides or delivering a program—because I want to make sure I'm spending my energy on the big ticket items. And I know exactly how I want those outsourced projects to be done.
In my early days, I’d do my best to give clear direction. But when something wasn’t done exactly as I wanted it, I would get so frustrated with the other person.
Channel your frustration into providing excellent examples that the people you work with can emulate.
I finally realized I needed to teach by showing, not telling. I started sharing samples of slide decks I liked. I started having facilitators sit in on a program I was delivering before I unleashed them to deliver it solo.
Sometimes even the clearest instruction won’t serve you as well as role-modeling will. So, channel your frustration into providing excellent examples that the people you work with can emulate.
And there you have some of my favorite strategies for letting my frustration teach me about changes I need to make.
Now it’s your turn. What is your frustration trying to teach you, and are you ready to become its student?