Your inbox slog overwhelms you. A colleague fails to meet his part of the team’s deadline, and you blow a fuse. A coworker talks over you in a meeting, and you seethe with anger. The game-changing new account you thought you had goes south, and you slam your fist. And when you’re late for work and the morning commuter cuts you off in traffic, you give him the finger. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. We’re all destined for work stress, but there’s a point when it can feel like a powder keg, and our unbridled reactions sabotage our performance.
‘Tis the season to be jolly. But think of all the times you brooded for countless hours over one negative aspect of a situation when, in retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as you thought. In fact, your brain may have overlooked many positive elements. Your boss squints over her glasses at you in a meeting, and you sizzle inside. The next day she gives you a raving performance review. And what about all those times you wigged out over a presentation and couldn’t get that one frowning face in the front row off your mind—convinced you were a disaster? Only to find out that you were a huge success. All that worry for nothing, the exact opposite of what your brain predicted.
Unrealistic deadlines. Job demands. Boss breathing down your neck. When the work doldrums come—and they surely will—we get mired in negativity and over focus on the problem, obscuring potential solutions. Neuroscientists call this hard-wired tendency to overestimate negativity and underestimate positivity, the negativity bias. Giving negativity greater credibility dwarfs work engagement and productivity and can even make us want to throw in the towel. This is especially true when negativity lingers after our hard work goes unrecognized or we’re overlooked for a promotion. When we live in that amped-up state for too long—alarm bells ringing at full blast—it drains our clarity, well-being and resilience for personal growth and success.
“We’re not always powerful enough to fend off unwelcome work stressors,” says Eva Condron-Wells, senior vice president of user content at ComfortZones Digital. “The key is what you do with the stressors to stay cool under pressure,” she told me. “But the good news is you are powerful enough to choose how you respond to them. It’s possible to sidestep your reactive brain from siphoning your energy by learning not to let every little hiccup throw you into a tizzy—whether it’s a printer paper jam, a traffic jam, or grape jam smeared across your office desk.” Condron-Wells offers five ways you can flip your perspective instead of your lid and manage work stress instead of letting it manage you.
- Accept work struggles as one side of your career. “We see and experience different sides of physical things, but our thoughts are not tangible, so this visualization can help. Imagine the work stressor as a coin or a container. At a minimum a coin has two sides. A container has multiple sides. When we get stuck on just one side, it distorts our perspective and creates discouragement so large it can eclipse our confidence and cripple the motivation to persist, grow and succeed. Work pressures, frustrations and letdowns are one side of our careers but only one side. You can’t have a front without a back, a right without a left, an up without a down. If we practice this mental exercise, challenges will still show up, but we will be able to get more out of them, which in turn keeps us calm, fosters our learning and helps grow our careers. This is not a passive acceptance of bad things but an active acceptance that work and stressors are a package deal.”
- Focus on the solution. When faced with a work challenge, Condron-Wells recommends that you notice your perspective and how much time you spend focused on the problem. Then decide to re-frame work struggles in a new light, so you don’t get stuck in a swirl of negative responses that exacerbate stress and derail performance. She says it’s important to celebrate the highs of your career (awards, achievements, and learning and growth) without taking them any more seriously than the lows. Conversely, it’s essential not to take the work lows anymore seriously than the highs. They exist together, collectively making up your career.
- Look for Learning. “If you look at negative experiences and emotions such as fear, failure or frustration in a different way—as signs that you’re on a learning curve—it helps you focus on the path out of the negativity and toward better performance,” she explains. “After a project or problem, ask yourself and your team, ‘What worked well? What did not work well? What will we repeat? What could we do differently in the future?’ These questions invite negative and positive experiences to be shared and help everyone see the future with a more informed perspective. No one wants to struggle, but if we do, this helps turn it into wisdom for the future. We will also never be perfect, ever. So knowing how to turn problems, challenges or mistakes into insights and learning turns something painful into something powerful.”
- Balance the Scales. Condron-Wells suggests you picture a scale with two different plates. Then, imagine placing the negative event on one side of the scale. Next, picture yourself counter balancing it. But because that negative thing is pretty heavy, you need three positive things. “Over time you’ll start to see the good with the bad, not to minimize the bad, but to see that more than one truth is happening at the same time,” she says. “Good (or great) things that you may have done may be: identified a risk, solved a problem, stayed committed, helped others, saved time, money, energy—even lives. How you process a lot of this is private. Few people know how we are managing work challenges, but when we share our approaches, we open up dialogue that helps everyone.”
- Turn Your Frown Upside Down. “I hesitated sharing this at first until I read the groundbreaking research that smiling not only reflects how we feel, but it contributes to lifting our moods by tricking the mind into perceiving the world in a positive light. That made me feel better about a course of action I used with my kids to help them flip their perspectives and think through their challenges. I could not be responsible for their happiness, and I wanted to grow their ability to foster it themselves and move to a more constructive space. When negativity hits home, you can do what I did and come up with a chart. On the left, write what upsets you. Then write three things you are grateful for. At work you can list the work stressors and three positive ways to overcome them. Or you can name the challenges and three lessons you learned. Stay positive, though. No, your boss is not a jerk. Include constructive strategies like, ‘I need to be more concise’ or ‘The leader needs materials 24 hours in advance.’”