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Career Advice

How to Strategically Manage Frustration at Work

Posted by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer

Career Advice Expert

May 30, 2018

Frustration is a tempter, an emotional trickster. It goads us with the false promise that our feelings are worthy of the mounting fireworks display: This is the last straw. I’m fed up. Can you believe this guy? Frustration, with its loud, emotional appeal; why not take its bait, and surrender?

But what does it earn us when we do? What was the outcome when, fueled by frustration, we said something curt to our boss, rolled our eyes in a meeting, snapped at a co-worker, “accidentally” hung up on a customer?  Indulging frustration may feel satisfying, even necessary, for a moment. Then reality sets in, and with it the immediate need to clean up after our faux solution. If our indulgence had truly solved the problem, we wouldn’t need to run damage control.

It usually takes less energy to refrain from indulging frustration than to enact clean-up. Spraying frustration around the office makes our jobs harder, it doesn’t solve our problems and it makes us look bad.

Frustration is part of life. Rather than allowing it to pull your strings, learn to understand and manage it. This way, you can recognize the trickster and handle it in ways that benefit you.


Acquaint yourself with frustration

It’s hard to control what we don’t understand. So observe your own frustration. Dr. Laurie Nadel, psychotherapist, business coach and author of The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes explains: “Frustration is not so much an emotion as it is a distorted cognitive response to a presupposition that we are entitled to get what we want in that particular moment.  Therefore, I see frustration as a state that gives us an opportunity for critical thinking which is defined as ‘thinking about how we think.’  I do not see it as destructive...I see it as a possibility for growth.”

Just because frustration can feel overbearing and outlet-seeking, doesn’t mean you have to react in kind. Your self-composure and control matter more, especially in the workplace.   

Enact real problem-solving measures

Reacting poorly to frustration doesn’t just lead to a messy solution, it also doesn’t solve the problem. Move past the urge enact regretful or rude responses-recognize those as urgings from the trickster.

When you feel that urge to do something destructive, it means you need a break. You need a minute to get emotionally on top of things.  Dr. Nadel explains: “Recognize that when you are frustrated, you are being reactive rather than proactive.  If you recognize frustration as a signal that there is a situation that needs to be explored from a different angle, then you can welcome it for the opportunity it offers for creative thinking.”

You probably have a real problem on your hands-you’ve got a boss who doesn’t support you or a co-worker who drives you crazy. You need real solutions. You need to think that through and to talk to your support network.

But in that moment, while you’re on the phone with an angry customer who wants to blame you for everything, you need to get out of the interaction in a tidy way that benefits you. Then you can work through the bigger problem of the difficult boss or co-worker.

As you feel frustration mounting, instead of indulging it, examine it. “I feel stressed. This person is blaming me, and it’s not my fault. I worry that if I go to my boss about it, she won’t have my back. So I’m going to get off this call, causing as little disruption as possible. Then I’m going to think about my relationship with my boss, because if she can’t support me during stressful times I’m not sure that this role can be a fit for me.”

Don’t magnify problems for yourself by allowing frustration to take the wheel. Take a moment. Analyze the issues. Free yourself from the immediate, pressing situation. Consider how to solve the underlying problem.  

Dr. Nadel advises: “Frustration is frequently a reaction to our perceived helplessness in a particular situation. But we are not helpless.  When we express frustration by blaming someone else, we are missing out on an opportunity to reposition our response to that sense of helplessness.”  

Skillfully handling the trickster  

Exhibiting composure during a stressful moment, and handling challenges gracefully are impressive qualities. Dr. Nadel points out there’s much to learn: “If we see frustration as a message that we need to explore our thinking about the ‘frustrating’ issue, then we stop ‘tolerating’ frustration and utilize it to our benefit.”

These are components of emotional intelligence that show that you understand your feelings and that you know how to manage them. Compare that with the alternative.

Decide to behave in the way that benefits you, taking the opportunity it offers to hone your self-control. Teach yourself how to do so by recognizing the rewards it gives you versus the extra work it leaves you with to behave in an emotionally chaotic way.  

Dr. Nadel explains: “Every state contains information.  Uncomfortable states contain a lot of powerful information about how we look at things.  I see frustration as an opportunity to think critically and to change models of belief and behavior that are not working for us. It’s a good thing if we work with it.”

Take the opportunity. You’re in control, not the trickster.   


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