Win at work

How to leave your psychological baggage at the office door

Win at work

Source: Best Health Magazine, Spring 2008

Do you find yourself putting off projects until you’re down to the wire, then scrambling to finish? Have colleagues accused you of being too thin-skinned, or of lecturing instead of listening? You may be indulging in the kind of self-defeating behaviours at the office that start as coping mechanisms but can end up threatening your livelihood, health and happiness.

According to Dr. Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist in Santa Monica, California, and author of Get Out of Your Own Way at Work, we learn behaviour patterns from parents, teachers, peers and past experience. “Throughout life, you are always stepping into the unknown. When those steps go well, you feel vital and vigorous. But when you fall flat on your face, you’re confused and fearful.” Your negative responses to setbacks at work can become hard-wired into self-defeating coping behaviours such as procrastination, griping and spineless people-pleasing—which can impede your progress in the long run.

The good news: You can unlearn these patterns on your own. Here’s help so you can jettison the baggage and get on with winning at work.

The lecturer

Telltale signs: You hate to be questioned and find yourself engaging in monologues or diatribes that leave colleagues bored, insulted or angry.

Baggage check:
Talking over or at others in this fashion is often a sign of insecurity, says Goulston. Perhaps you felt ignored or disrespected as a child, and you live in fear that the situation will be mirrored at work. But when you lecture or yell instead of listening, you rarely get buy-in from staff.

Get back on track: Opt for clear and calm discussion, with equal weight given to everyone’s point of view, suggests Goulston. And ask for input from colleagues, advises Carla Masse, a certified professional life coach, and founder and president of Crossroads Life Coaching in Vancouver. “People work harder, produce more and gain respect [for you] if they feel you are listening, not just bossing them around.”

The shrinking violet

Telltale signs: You hesitate to speak up about your concerns, your triumphs and your desire for a promotion. After all, you wouldn’t want to be pushy.

Baggage check: To you, assertiveness is akin to aggressiveness, says Goulston. You may have been bullied as a child, or perhaps you stood by helplessly and watched as someone else was—regardless, you want no part of it. The problem is, if you yearn for plum assignments and promotions but say nothing, people will assume you have nothing to say.

Get back on track: Masse advises assertiveness-challenged women to think back to a time when they were filled with confidence. “How did you feel?” she asks them. “How did you stand, and speak?” Once you have a picture in your mind, practise delivering a message confidently. Or consider hiring a professional or life coach. Says Masse: “I find a lot of women will spend money on their hair and clothes, or on updating their credentials. But few invest in learning skills for life.”

The mother hen

Telltale signs: Family comes first with you and everybody knows it. Your office or cubicle is a cozy den lined with snapshots of your kids, your dogs, your nephew’s girlfriend’s son. You regularly duck out for family-related events.

Baggage check:
Women sometimes adopt the mother hen shtick at work because it is a familiar feminine role that is non-threatening—one associated with deference and caregiving. But, says Toronto career coach and corporate trainer Colleen Clarke, of Colleen Clarke and Associates, “if your office has become a photo gallery, it could leave the subconscious impression that you’d rather be anywhere but work.” Ditto if you’re constantly airing personal problems.

Get back on track: Repeat after us: Work is work and home is home. “When a person takes a job, they sign up for certain hours,” says Clarke. “Yes, there are times when it is important for parents to attend a child’s event. But keep it to a minimum.” Similarly, go easy on the photos and boasting about your kids. “It’s about maintaining a professional demeanour.”

The griper

Telltale signs: You always have a ton to say about your boss, your company and your job, but it tends to be negative, and spoken in whispers. You rarely voice your opinion aloud, but are apt to roll your eyes or sigh loudly whenever you disagree with something.

Baggage check:
“A complainer is really just a screamer in passive-aggressive clothing,” says Goulston. But your tendency to gripe quietly and employ dirty looks, eye rolling and relentless negativity can get you in trouble at work. Clarke says that one woman, working a temp job, contacted her recently to say she’d complained to a fellow employee about her pay. He, in turn, informed her boss, and she got a pink slip not long afterwards. “You just can’t know who is really on your side and who is not,” says Clarke.

Get back on track: Suggest, don’t complain. If something at the office is bothering you, says Clarke, do something about it that’s within your power. “If you can’t do anything, get over it.” Do you have a valid issue regarding your salary? By all means tell your boss you don’t think you’re getting what you’re worth—and provide backup from Statistics Canada or an industry organization.

The excuse-maker

Telltale signs: You have trouble owning up to your role when things go wrong. You tell long, involved stories about how something is not your fault.

Baggage check:
If you grew up with parents who did a lot of blaming, you may assume a defensive posture when you mess up, says Goulston. By offering excuses, you put yourself back in the child’s role, seeking to be forgiven and exonerated by the parent. But refusing to take responsibility or blaming others for your errors only alienates co-workers, says Barbara Moses of Toronto, author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. “People won’t trust or want to work with you.”

Get back on track: It is far better to admit to having made a mistake than to shake it off. In fact, contends Moses, “You get brownie points for acknowledging it, because nobody is perfect.” Make statements such as, “In hindsight, I think it would have been better if I had…” or, “I’m sorry, I am responsible for this.” Then stop.

The people-pleaser

Telltale signs: You yearn to be liked by everyone and, like an eager puppy, you’re constantly seeking approval.

Baggage check:
Many children of alcoholics are people-pleasers, says Goulston. “The syndrome of co-dependency sets in and takes root in family members who will do anything to keep the peace in a dysfunctional household. Pleasing people works as a control and coping mechanism.” But in the workplace, your efforts to please can drain co-workers’ respect, and in your quest for “yes,” you probably have a hard time saying “no.”

Get back on track: If you supervise others, practise delegating, Goulston suggests. And when co-workers ask you to take on projects that eat up your time, but don’t really move you ahead at work, just say no. Finally, advises Moses, explore why you are dependent on the approval of others to feel good about yourself. Could it be that you don’t give yourself enough positive feedback? “When you start to feel needy, take stock of your accomplishments. And remind yourself that if there was a problem, you’d hear about it.”

The procrastinator

Telltale signs: You consistently wait until the last minute to get things done. If they are imperfect, oh well, you would have done better if only you had had more time.

Baggage check:
People procrastinate because they are overwhelmed, afraid to commit to a course of action, and ultimately fearful of failing, says Goulston. Procrastinators rely on that last-minute burst of adrenaline to push them past their fear. But over time, the constant stress is hard on your health, your work suffers and you may become known as the unreliable one who holds everyone up.

Get back on track:
Tackle two crucial tasks you’ve been avoiding. Aim to finish them well before the deadline so you have time to take another look and perfect them, suggests Goulston. Then choose two more. “But stick to two items—a long list is just an invitation to failure.”

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