Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Choose power, not pity

Highway and Road TransportationDaneen Skube

Q. The past year has been nothing but drama. There has been a huge amount of turnover, unexpected changes, and demanding projects. Everyone in the company is constantly making things worse by complaining about how unfair it all is. Is there a way to get my team to focus more on fixing problems than whining about their circumstances?

A. Yes, as the world moves faster and work becomes less predictable, the level of stress is going through the roof. You can get people to focus on problem solving if you understand better how people respond to unpredictable and unrelenting stress.

Many people define relationships as a conversation in which each party complains about problems, each party feels sorry for the other party, and both parties walk away feeling validated in their powerlessness. People don't generally change their idea of what relationships should be just because they are now at work.

When people show up at the office, their personal relationships have trained them to expect they can vent, get pity and trudge down their road of life feeling sorry for themselves.

Once in a rare while someone may have the audacity to suggest that they may have to change what they are doing to get better results. Most people trip over this kind of knowledge, dust themselves off, and try to hurry along quickly before they have to take responsibility for changing. Human beings are more comfortable feeling powerless than dealing with the anxiety that comes up when they consider taking the risk to change what makes them miserable.

Now that you understand the tradeoff between misery/powerlessness and effectiveness/power, you'll be able to present your team with two choices: They can continue to be victims of forces they cannot control. They will be miserable but won't have to take any risks or responsibility. They will also get lots of sympathy for their tough circumstances. Or they can use their misery as an impetus to take risks. They may fail, look foolish or try multiple options that still don't work, but eventually they'll fix a problem that bugs them.

We all enjoy luxuriating in the pity and sympathy of others when we are unhappy. Unfortunately, if we allow self-pity to become a permanent resting place rather than a pit stop, we prevent ourselves from getting what we want. People who have good work lives, after all, don't get much pity.

On a bad day, we can all get tangled up in the drama and emotional intensity of our problems. On a good day, it may occur to us that each day we are presented with problems that need to be solved. Getting stuck in venting for long periods about our victimhood means all our energy goes into how powerless we feel rather than how powerful we could be.

Next time you think your workplace is falling apart, try saying to yourself with a deep breath, "This is simply a problem to be solved," and watch yourself settle down. Your team will watch you and learn that settling for pity is literally a consolation prize -- and that power is the brass ring they can reach for.

The last word(s)

Q. A colleague and I are both applying for the same promotion. I'm worrying myself sick about skills and experience he might bring to the position that I don't have. Is there a way to make it clear he isn't very good at his job and increase my chances?

A. Yes, focus on highlighting your strengths, not downgrading his skills.

(Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel's "Workplace Guru" each Monday morning. She's the author of "Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything" (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun