Excerpt: 'Working With You Is Killing Me'

ByABC News via logo
April 2, 2006, 1:28 PM

April 3, 2006 — -- Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster work together at New York employment consulting firm K Squared Enterprises. Crowley is a psychotherapist who helps workers deal with emotional stress, and Elster works with CEOs and managers to develop management skills and plan for the future. Their new book points out that basket cases populate the workplace -- any workplace. They advise people to put themselves and their work first rather than attempt to manage the difficult people at the office.

Chapter 1 Excerpt: Change Your Reaction, Change Your Life

Let's explore the two faces of business -- the clear, crisp Kodak image that companies present to the outside world, versus the day-to-day reality of working in any company, which is usually messy, complicated, political, and full of emotional traps.

On the surface, business is about making money, delivering goods and services, and producing results. The focus is usually on crunching numbers, meeting deadlines, and increasing sales. We assess individual companies by their empirical facts -- profit and loss, cash flow, stock options, and growth potential.

Scratch the rational surface of any company, however, and you uncover a hotbed of emotions: people feeling anxious about performance, angry with coworkers, and misunderstood by management. You find leaders who are burnt out and assistants who are buried in resentment. For example:

Meet Eric, manager of customer service for a fast-growing software company. He's proud of his company's products, but his head starts throbbing whenever he hears from a certain very large account. They're never satisfied with any of the products they've purchased. They claim that the accounting software is too complicated, the database has too many fields, and the time-tracking program doesn't download fast enough. Eric and his staff spend hours addressing their complaints, troubleshooting problems as they arise. "We bust our humps for these guys. As soon as we solve one problem, they call with something else." In between complaints they threaten to leave Eric's company for a better deal.

"It's exhausting," Eric sighs. "I can't win."

Jessica is the administrative assistant to the vice president of a small public relations firm. Early each morning, this VP leaves piles of work on Jessica's desk with a note: "Off to scare up more business. Please take care of these things before I return." Jessica arrives at the office, sees the stack of papers on her desk, and immediately feels anxious and overwhelmed. "My boss always gives me more work than I can possibly complete in one day," she complains. "I can't get her to meet with me and prioritize the workload." If Jessica doesn't finish everything, she's labeled "inefficient" or "lacking initiative."

These individuals feel trapped by their circumstances, stuck in a losing game. They're unable to free themselves from a bad situation. Because business calls for unemotional behavior, their feelings remain largely unexpressed and suppressed. They think their options are just to suck it up or quit.

We call the experience of feeling caught in an emotionally distressing situation at work being hooked. If you find yourself consistently having a strong negative internal reaction to someone or something in your work environment, you are probably hooked. Emotional hooks vary widely from person to person and job to job. Something as trivial as the nasal tone of a colleague's voice or as weighty as a manager's personality disorder can hook you. A hook can be as simple as a rude remark or as complex as professional sabotage.

If you are a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, normal human being, there's a good chance that you've encountered people and circumstances at work that hook you. In some cases, the incident may generate only mild irritation. In other cases, you may reach a point where you feel like the person or situation is literally killing you.

We've met hardworking individuals who want to be productive and happy at work, but instead feel emotionally trapped in numerous ways. They feel overwhelmed, overworked, underutilized, undermined, disrespected, discounted, interrupted, interrogated, sidetracked, steamrolled, set up, and fed up. Their job descriptions differ, but their experiences are the same.

For most people, earning a living is not an option; it's a requirement. Work eats up more time than any other activity in their lives. At a time when our culture places such emphasis on feeling good, being happy, and having it all, why is it that so many people are dissatisfied at work? Our experience reveals it's largely because they feel trapped, hooked into positions, relationships, and situations that zap their energy, invade their thoughts, and keep them stuck in no-win positions.

The workplace affords numerous opportunities to get hooked, and almost no guidance about how to deal with it. It's appropriate to go to the boss with questions regarding production, accounts receivable, or sales figures. These are nonemotional, factual issues that can be addressed objectively. But when you feel nauseous after a staff meeting or a certain account gives you a migraine, where do you turn?

Take Susan, a marketing executive for a large financial services company. It's Thursday morning and she's sitting at the weekly staff meeting where the departments are giving their reports. Susan's colleague Tracy unabashedly takes credit for a brilliant promotion idea that Susan had originated.

Susan feels a flash of heat surging through her body. Her face turns red. Her eyelid starts to twitch. Her hearing fades. All she can think about is how she'd like to strangle Tracy. Instead of speaking up or joining the meeting, Susan mentally checks out.

Susan just got hooked. Her reaction to Tracy's behavior was to seethe with anger and stop participating. While Susan's response is understandable, getting caught in her own anger doesn't help her situation. In fact, tuning out makes her appear uninterested in the very idea she created.

Susan's experience at her company's staff meeting is not unique. In fact, it's commonplace. The normal reaction when someone else's behavior upsets you is to blame your internal responses on that individual's conduct. As Tony Soprano would say before shooting his latest betrayer, "Look what you made me do!"

In many cases, your response to the situation may make perfect sense. Vicious office gossip is infuriating. An incompetent coworker can be maddening. When a diva of a customer won't return calls it does feel insulting. But, as with Susan, your righteous indignation doesn't improve anything. It just keeps you hooked.

There is a way out. You don't necessarily have to kill anyone or quit your job. You can stay right where you are and still have a different, more satisfying experience. We've helped thousands of people like Eric, Jessica, and Susan transform their workplace from a den of personal frustration to an arena for professional development.

In our work with executives, managers, and employees from every industry, we've learned that the most effective way to resolve interpersonal problems in the workplace is to approach the situation from the inside out. We teach our clients that the key to dealing effectively with difficult people and situations at work is to manage our internal responses first. By internal response we mean the automatic reaction that someone else's behavior triggers inside of you. People lose it in different ways. You may heat up, blow up, shut down, freeze up, or go into a tailspin.

If you can change your reaction, you'll change your life.

We call the activity of changing your reaction to emotionally upsetting circumstances at work unhooking. Unhooking is a system that gives you tools for managing yourself and taking charge of your work life. Whether you feel caught in political crossfire, trapped by a difficult coworker, or held hostage by the antics of a certain department, you can unhook and take practical steps to change your behavior and create a different result.

Unhooking provides an alternative to your automatic reactions: You can despise the malicious office gossip or you can unhook by setting clear boundaries and showing a lack of interest. You can judge the incompetent coworker or you can unhook by lowering your expectations and avoiding the negative impact of that person's ineptitude. You can feel insulted by the customer who won't return your calls or you can unhook -- take it in stride and accept it as part of doing business.There are four essential steps to unhooking.

Step 1-- Unhook physically
Step 2 -- Unhook mentally
Step 3 -- Unhook verbally
Step 4 -- Unhook with a business tool

The first two steps, unhooking physically and mentally, help you release negative emotions and calm down your system. The second two steps, unhooking verbally and with a business tool, involve taking actions to change your experience. To show you how unhooking works, we return to Susan and offer a revised scenario:

Sitting at the same meeting, Tracy proudly takes credit for Susan's brilliant promotion idea. Susan feels herself reacting, feels the surge of heat through her body, feels her face redden, her brow twitch. She realizes, "I just got hooked." What Susan needs to do now is to unhook; she needs to change her reaction to Tracy's sabotaging behavior.

Unhook physically: Susan breathes deeply to calm herself down, release her anger, and check back into the meeting.
Unhook mentally: Susan tells herself not to be intimidated by Tracy's behavior; she can find a way to be heard.
Unhook verbally: Susan speaks up: "When I first ran this idea by Tracy, we both got excited about it."