How to Stop Powerlessness at Work
Powerlessness at work is devastating. Any professional who shows up each and every day with passion and expertise and then finds they are not able to move the needle forward in a meaningful way will try and find another way. BUT, as a professional, you know you can only go into those meetings, and be shot down, so many times before it effects your credibility in the organization. This deeply impacts self-esteem.
I don’t know about you, but when I feel powerless, I get cranky and it’s taken me years to figure out that anger is my early warning sign, made all the worse because I hid my anger. You can’t be angry at work and keep your professional relationships intact. When work was a hot mess, I needed something to go smoothly somewhere in my life. So, I channelled that anger into trying harder at work, working longer hours, but that didn’t make things better, it just made me exhausted (eating emotionally and abandoning all self-care). Since I didn’t have control at work, I tried to have it at home, which (of course) just made things at home almost as bad as they were at work. I was putting so much pressure on myself and my family that no one really wanted to be around me at home.
This was my first encounter with professional burnout. Stuffing my anger down meant, predictably, I ended up needing a leave of absence from work for health reasons. Stepping back from work meant I could start to see the pattern. I was tired of being angry. I was heartbroken by my negative impact on my family and my health. I was done with being exhausted and in physical pain. I had hit the wall; I had no options left and nowhere to turn.
This is the connection between powerlessness and professional burnout. It happens to professionals in different ways, through different experiences than mine (physical and emotional), but powerlessness is there. Powerless to say “no”. Powerless to get all the things done well. Powerlessness to protect your family/team from chaos. Powerlessness to deliver on what you know you can do.
I reached out for help and it was one of the best things, because asking for help is the first step out of powerlessness. I immediately felt lighter! Best of all my health habits and family life had a chance to repair and support our well-being again. In seeking support, I learned so many important things that are not taught in a classroom, or modeled by others at work. It’s like there were these little secrets that no one talked about, but were instrumental in creating a work life I could love.
So here are the secrets.
I also needed to learn to deal with “so what”. Back to work after my leave, I was talking to my coach about something that had infuriated me; some dumb-assed-ness I just couldn’t believe was happening at work. And she asked “So what?”. I was shocked into silence because that wasn’t a supportive statement. I asked her what she meant, and what she explained was life-altering for me: Things were not always going to make sense at work; people were going to remain blind to what I could see, no matter how hard I tried to show them, or how much I worked on my communication skills. These were not things I could control or change, so what? What was my move?
I didn’t have one, except hard work. And that was slowly destroying me. I needed to build other skills that would empower me in these circumstances.
This began my exploration into understanding that when I was shot down or ignored at work it did not have to leave me powerless. Working hard was a defense mechanism, one with very limited effectiveness. What powerlessness signaled was the need to have a conversation where I explored what that was all about, accepting their behaviour/decision as “what is”. That didn’t mean I agreed with this other person (or let them walk all over me), but pursued a fuller understanding of their point of view. AND the only way to get there was to suspend my judgment of this other person and my assumptions about what was going on. Only without judgement, assumptions and defensiveness could I create the psychological safety needed to have meaningful conversations. This led to deeper understanding that meant I started to see invisible-to-me barriers; removing them creating empowering options for myself and my team.
Along the way to learning these “secrets” I fought against them with everything in me. Why should I be the one who had to do this? Why did I need to be more self-aware and they didn’t? My boss was supposed to be supporting my well-being at work, not the other way around! It all felt completely unfair, which it was. And it wouldn’t stop being unfair unless I did something to help myself. I learned how to have different conversations. When I was told work my team had been doing for 6 months was no longer relevant AND was holding us back, I found myself calmly saying that I wanted to understand that perspective better. Through inviting conversation, I learned that there was a perception issue about my team and what we did that I could now easily address. I was also able to share what my team had learned along the way that was incredibly useful to the organization, even if the end work product was not. It was far from ideal, but the outcome was greater mutual understanding and awareness that meant I stayed empowered and my team got the respect they deserved.
Learning these things wasn’t easy. But it has been worth it.
These things are not taught in a classroom, or at work. We don’t talk about how to radically accept “what is” as a way to keep our power. We don’t discuss how acceptance is not the same as agreement, nor how it feels completely counter-intuitive to use acceptance as a way of empowering ourselves. Far from making you a push-over, acceptance empowers you to see things more clearly and ask better questions - pushing through misunderstanding and assumptions. Acceptance allowed me to put healthy boundaries in place to keep my self-esteem intact when there were things I couldn’t control (like the unhelpful thoughts and actions of others). Acceptance allowed my team and I to flourish, even when things were a hot mess at work.
Use these secrets. Keep your power, you’ve earned it. If you’re struggling with feeling powerless in your work, I can help (and please, ask someone for help BEFORE you burnout).
Working with Carleen, I don't hate my job anymore! And I didn't have to change employers."
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