Cubicle Advice

Cynicism in the Workplace: How to Maintain Your Sanity while Staying Engaged

We’ve all been there.

It’s Monday morning at work. After only a few hours in the office, you realize you’re not feeling half bad. It’s a new week, which means a new chance to feel positive about what you’re doing. You’ve got this! You head over to the water cooler to grab a refill, but as you approach, you see Susie and Joe huddled up together in that all-too-familiar us-against-the-corporation stance: shoulders rounded, faces scrunched up in frustration, eyes darting around to make sure no one can overhear. As you get closer, you start to hear the angry undertones of their frantic half-whispers.

“Can you believe they’re cutting our bonuses, again?” Joe says in a low voice, clearly furious about the most recent turn of events.

“I know!” Susie almost half-yells. She looks around to see if anyone has heard but then continues in a quieter voice. “How cheap can they get? I promised my kids a vacation for the holidays!”

You’re about to head back to the safe recesses of your cubicle, but that’s when Joe sees you and makes eye contact. “Hey,” he says to you, just as you realize your only chance of escape has come and gone. You tentatively approach. “Did you hear what Corporate is doing? Can you believe this crap?” He looks hard at you, expecting a response.

Do you:

  1. jump in on the conversation and become more blameful, angry, and cynical by the minute as you discuss with Joe and Susie how unfair the situation is?
  2. try to diffuse Joe’s and Susie’s frustrations, explaining that, all things considered, it makes sense? We have to cut costs somehow, and our bonuses weren’t really set in stone when we were hired on.
  3. get angry and frustrated at them, telling them to suck it up and deal with it because that’s what working for this kind of company entails?
  4. mumble something incoherent or give a half-hearted “yeah, that stinks” and slink back to your cubicle before they have a chance to question you further? or,
  5. jump up and down, wave your hands, yell “I love fingernail clippings and used popsicle sticks!” and then run away before they have a chance to stop you?

If you chose “a”, you’ll likely leave the conversation feeling like a victim to your circumstances. You might conclude that your job sucks, you can’t make any difference in how terrible it is, and you should probably just quit.

If you chose “b”, you might succeed in connecting with your coworkers and make a positive difference in how you all feel about working for this company. Or, you might just frustrate them even further, causing disconnection and feelings of helplessness.

I hope that you have never taken the route of “c” because that would mean you have completely passed the point of giving a damn about what your coworkers think of you. But even if you have, don’t worry. As much as you want to beat yourself up for your outburst, I can assure you that it won’t make you feel better or keep you from doing it again in the future.

If you chose “d”, it’s likely that you’ve felt disempowered, stuck, and disconnected from your job and the people you work with for a very long time. You may also be at a point where you wish you could just quit rather than suffer another day of this kind of negativity.

And, if you chose option “e”, please stop reading this blog. You already have all the tools in your toolbox to live a happy and fulfilled life and I can be of no more service to you.

It doesn’t really seem like there’s a good solution, does it? In some instances, we give away our power and feel like victims, and in others, we take power in ways that end up making us feel isolated (for instance, when we lash out at others). Each option risks feelings of disconnection from the people we have to be around every single day. Even in the situations where we jump on the bandwagon and scream “down with the company!”, we end up feeling disconnecting from the establishment that we, in the very beginning, were so excited to contribute to.

When we’re in this dynamic with coworkers, it’s really difficult to remain authentic, honest, kind, and connected. Those four things are big values of mine, and I’m going to venture a guess that they’re important to many other people as well. At the same time we want to be our true selves, we also want to feel connected to others, and we want to do it in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our good-naturedness.

How do we do that?

By using three important tools: boundaries, empowerment, and kindness.

Boundaries:

How do boundaries help us? They allow us to be aware of what’s ours and what’s not including our emotions, opinions, and preferences. Once we know that, we can choose to take responsibility for only our own stuff and encourage others to take responsibility for theirs.

Susie and Joe’s anger aren’t yours, and vice versa. Even if you’re angry at the situation too, it’s still your anger. Combining your collective anger will simply blow everything out of proportion (just like sharing excitement with others can make something even more joyful). Keeping your emotions separate from theirs allows you to keep a sense of what you can control and what you can’t.

I plan to do an entire article at some point on boundaries, but for now imagine this: there’s a bubble around you at all times. You get to choose how thick or thin your bubble is at any given moment. In this particular scenario, your bubble is thicker. Your anger, fear, or frustration doesn’t leave your bubble, and Susie and Joe’s emotions don’t enter it. It’s harder than it sounds, as I’m sure you’re aware. But working on strengthening your bubble is one of the best things you can do for yourself to maintain your sanity in the workplace.

Empowerment:

Empowerment is the sense that you can change your situation. When we lose a sense of empowerment, we become victims. Victims can’t do anything about their situations. They’ve given all their power away – to Susie and Joe, to their company, to the universe. It’s pretty easy to spot when you’ve slipped into victimhood because you start to feel excessively blameful, angry, and stuck.

Taking our power back means accepting that we can do something about our situation, even if it’s only the tiniest step in the right direction. We could talk with our boss about our concerns, write a letter to the CEO to explain how these changes impact real people in negative ways, or we could simply choose to just breathe during these moments of frustration. We have the power to simply breathe in, breath out, and relax our minds and our bodies. What happens to us at work may suck, and it may suck really bad, but it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean our entire job is a useless waste of time. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never be happy in our profession again. It simply means that things kind of suck right now, and it’s highly likely that they’ll eventually get better.

Kindness:

What situation makes you feel better about yourself? Vehemently thinking up all the ways you could tell Joe and Susie that they’re being a bunch of babies and to just deal with it? Or realizing that Joe and Susie are operating from a place of fear, where they’re scared they won’t be able to provide for their families the way they want to? Wouldn’t you agree that it feels better to realize that people in these kinds of situations just need a little compassion and empathy for the pain that’s being masked by anger?

Does it feel better to imagine all the ways you could get back at your company, or does it feel better to look at it from their perspective, to imagine the CEO as she sits in her office and realizes that the only way to keep the company afloat and thus allow her employees to keep their jobs entirely is to decrease their bonuses, as terrible as that choice is to make?

What feels better? Kindness does. Kindness always feels better. Kindness calms the nervous system down, lowers the pulse, and makes the heart feel more open. Kindness paves the way for a hope that things may not be as bad as they seem. Kindness helps you remember that somewhere in the world, someone has it way worse than you. And no, that doesn’t mean your situation isn’t worthy of compassion too. But it does remind you to keep things in perspective. All will be ok. Don’t worry. Just breathe.

So let’s end this story in an empowering, hopeful way:

“Did you  hear what Corporate is doing?” Joe asks you. “Can you believe this crap?”

You take a deep breath and give him a compassionate smile. “I did hear,” you respond to him. “I’ve been really frustrated by it. I can imagine you’re pretty frustrated too.”

“Yeah, I am,” Joe says, sounding a little more off guard, but he continues. “It is frustrating. Why do they think they can do this to us?!” Joe’s anger has returned, but your bubble is up, so it can’t affect you.

“Well,” you begin. “I was planning on setting up a meeting with the boss at 11 today, to talk about how this affects us and to see if there’s anything we can do about it. Do you want to join?”

Susie starts to nod, and Joe looks just a tiny bit more hopeful. “Yeah, we can try that. I don’t think it’s going to fix anything, but I sure would like to have my voice heard.”

“I’d like that too,” you tell them. “I’ll see you at 11.” You turn to walk away, ending the conversation on a positive note.

You return to your desk and realize you’ve forgotten to refill your water, but it doesn’t matter. You’re in a good mood. You kept your boundaries in place, remained in a state of compassion, and set a course for empowerment by suggesting you all talk to your boss together. You feel pretty darn good about yourself in this moment. And that’s all you really need to carry yourself through the rest of your day.

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