I don’t want to go to work.

When the alarm goes off in the morning and we’re yanked from our cozy cocoons, for many of us, our first thought is dread at having to spend our days a) doing work that doesn’t feed our passions, b) working in a culture that doesn’t allow our talents to be fully utilized, or c) leading a team that we don’t really know how to lead. Ask a room full of people how many of them are either in one of these situations themselves or know someone who is, and almost every hand in the room will be waving.

When I tell people that I started my company to help leaders lead in an authentic way that makes their people want to come to work every day, they start telling me stories.  They tell me about:

  • The terrible boss they had at that job they stayed at way too long.
  • The immense amount of talent on their team, but a boss who wouldn’t listen to their ideas.
  • The ways in which stress at work impacted their lives in incredibly harmful ways: they didn’t have energy to spend time with their kids, their marriages suffered, they gained weight and began drinking more, only to keep going back to that office day after day.

Often, leaders themselves tell me how miserable they are, unsure of what they can do to make their people want to work for them. Most of these leaders start their stories by telling me that they have a retention problem on their team – “I just can’t keep a team for more than 6-months!”

Some of these story tellers figured out a way to escape or change those toxic teams, and their stories are ones of “and then, we did this and everything got so much better,” but the majority of people who tell me their stories are still working in these environments, afraid to leave what’s known, no matter how dangerous. They ask me what they can do to break link between dread and work. Below are my most frequently offered recommendations:

For leaders:

  • Examine your leadership style. This is best done with a coach, a trusted colleague, or family member who will ask you good questions, be direct, and (painfully) honest. If you have a retention problem on your team, the buck stops with you. Consider your hiring practices, ability to delegate, recognition style when work is well done, willingness to walk into healthy conflict, skillfulness when delivering and receiving hard feedback, and enjoyment of your own job.
  • Listen. Get to know the people on your team. Everyone has personal motivations bringing them to work every day. To some, it will be a paycheck. To others, the company mission. Some people on your team will truly enjoy the work they’re doing on a daily basis. Once you know the motivations of the people in your care, you will be able to tailor your leadership and messaging to maximize the impact you’ll have on each individual on your team.
  • Engage. Ask your people what aspects of their job they enjoy most, and in what aspects they’re most confident. Work to maximize their time working in those areas, and tell them you’re going to try to do so. Learn what aspects of their job they most dislike or feel less confident in. Create a plan to either eliminate those tasks, or provide additional training or mentorship. No one wants to spend their days doing work they don’t feel skilled enough to do.
  • Follow-through. The quickest way to lose an inch (or a mile) of newly gained respect is to make promises that get your team excited, then fail to follow through on them. Put calendar reminders in your phone, sticky notes on your computer/desk, write in marker on your hand. Whatever you have to do to follow through on promises made to your team, do it.

For employees:

  • Write down your non-negotiable list. If you could wave a magic wand and create your ideal job, what elements would be present? Consider commute, office environment, dress code, colleagues, type of work you’d be doing, number of hours worked per day/week, salary, etc. Check out your list and highlight how many of these elements are possible at your current job.
  • Identify and write down what specific elements of your current role/experience/daily routine you dislike and want to change. Avoid statements like “I’m bored” and instead write down, “I hate typing memos and organizing spreadsheets when I want to be more creative and work on designing the layouts of presentations.”
  • Consider how many of the elements from your non-negotiable list could be possible at your current job. For example, if you really want to work on other types of projects, consider how you might advocate for that. Want a work from home day each week? How might you present your case to make it happen?
  • Get some support from people who ask good questions and can help you figure out next steps. Ideally, this person will be outside of your workplace to avoid going down the rabbit hole of “I know, isn’t it awful” conversations. Choose someone who will help hold you accountable to taking next steps toward your magic wand work environment.

Deciding to change something to lessen or banish the weekday alarm clock dread is an extraordinary act of courage.

When we become adults, we are not suddenly thrown onto a hamster wheel, where we have to keep going to the same job over and over again, doing the same things and wishing for different results.

We are competent, capable, kick-ass people who have within us the ability to make choices to effect outcomes. Do not stay at a dread-inducing job one more day without taking at least one step to fix it.

Making a decision to change a situation that makes you unhappy can be terrifying. However, as Teddy Roosevelt said, ““It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Decide today, be you leader or employee, to do one thing differently; to take one tiny, great dare. Decide that your alarm clock will be now be the signal of a new day – one in which you get to make the choices, and walk a surely zigzagged path toward something you believe is possible.

AuthorEmily Gelblum

Last night, I had dinner with a friend who, for the last five years, has been working in a toxic environment.  Her boss is what I call a "command and control" manager: she has so much talent, passion, and creativity in her staff, but insists on keeping her people on a tight and uncomfortable leash.  Nothing can be done without her express permission and direct involvement.  

My friend is one of those people who goes above and beyond, planning events and educational activities - inspiring creativity and always considering what else she could be doing to make her colleagues and clients successful. She's one of those people who, just by discussing her work with her, makes you want to get involved. It was evident last night that, over the course of five years of constantly battling a manager who wants to do the minimum and keep her people from outshining her, my friend has lost some of her energy and sparkle.  Everything she talks about, even the projects in which she's most invested, comes with a twinge of sadness in knowing that she'll face resistance and an attempt to control from her boss.  

Of course, this being one of my soap box topics, we talked about what could be done to improve the situation.  I introduced one of my favorite coaching activities - finding the sandbox within which you can play.  Finding the sandbox = finding the areas over which you have full control and autonomy in your decision making.  This is critical at every job, but is especially critical with a command and control boss.  Without your sandbox, you'll end up feeling powerless and like every move you make is out of your direct control.  

So, how do you find your sandbox?

1) Make a three columned list:

  • Column One = Things you're confident that you have autonomy over
    • e.g. Restroom/lunch break timing, developing your daily routine
  • Column Two = Things you're unsure that you have autonomy over
    • e.g. Work schedule, client communication, department budget decisions 
  • Column Three = Things you don't have autonomy over
    • e.g. Policies & procedures, raise and review schedules

2) Maximize column two:

You already know that you have direct authority and autonomy over the items in column one.  Excellent, high five.  Just by looking at column one, you likely have more autonomy than you thought.  While column three is pretty clear, column two is the grey area.  You may have had small tastes of autonomy with those items in the past, or you're getting unclear signals from your boss about your authority to act alone and make decisions.  Hang out with this list for a while - think about what else could be added.  Make column two as detailed and thorough as possible.

3) Test the waters:

One of my favorite quotes is, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission" said by Grace Hopper.  I was lucky - my first boss was a rule breaker - someone who challenged the status quo and asked for forgiveness many, many times.  However, he changed policies and operations by forging ahead with what he thought was the right thing to do.  

When you have a command and control boss, you can find your sandbox by asking for permission first.  You can take your column two items to your boss and ask for permission to have autonomy over those items.  It may or may not work, depending on how you approach the conversation and how responsive she is.  

I encourage you to do some mini experiments.  Take action on a column two item that you believe in - something that will do some observable good for your own performance results, client support, or will enhance overall business objectives.  In other words act on something that, if done well, will make your boss look good.  She's ultimately responsible for the performance of the team, right?  She can't (or shouldn't) argue with results.  Test the waters and slowly become her ally instead of her adversary by doing your work in a way that makes you feel fulfilled AND helps her meet her own goals.  

Creating your sandbox is a critical component of feeling truly fulfilled in any career.  You have to know what you have autonomy over and how you can make a difference in your own life, the lives of your clients, and colleagues on a daily basis.  Be brave - test some things out.  Make sure the things you choose to try create positive outcomes for everyone involved.  

Have fun with this - it'll bring some spice to your week, if nothing else.  

AuthorEmily Gelblum