By Susan de la Vergne
Have you ever noticed how often we’re dissatisfied about how things are going or about what other people are doing? People are stupid / wrong / mean / impossible. Systems are slow. Traffic is a nightmare. Management doesn’t get it.
When we look around us at work, we find a lot to complain about—poorly run meetings, unimaginative colleagues, incompetent project managers, tight budgets, unrealistic schedules. We complain about time wasted, about being misunderstood or disagreed with.
Why is it we find so much to be dissatisfied about? Are we just grouchy people?
We find much to be dissatisfied about because—believe it or not—we usually expect things to go well. So we’re surprised when they don’t. For example, we expect systems and technology to be fast and accurate, and when they aren’t, we’re dissatisfied. Ever yelled at your laptop? You expect it to be fast and ready and devoted to you, but it isn’t always. We expect things to go well.
Ever been surprised to find out someone doesn’t like you? We expect people to like us. After all, we’re trying to be the best we can be. Why wouldn’t everyone like us? But they don’t. Yet we’re surprised by that. We expect things to go well.
We expect that hard work and good work are rewarded. Yet they often aren’t. We’re disappointed when that happens, even angry about it sometimes. We didn’t expect it to go that way. Why? Because we expect things to go well.
We expect good, fair, open managers at work—which is why we complain often about management. If we expected managers to be dismissive, unreasonable, or closed-minded, or if we at least expected them to be uneven, we wouldn’t complain about them.
I’m not suggesting we should go around expecting the worst so we’re not disappointed. I’m suggesting instead we could simply accept how things are—that laptops are slow and traffic is inevitable and people do misunderstand us—without becoming dissatisfied. Systems are sometimes slow. Managers are uneven. Hard work is overlooked and unrewarded, not all the time, but often enough. Accept it. I’m not saying agree with it. I’m saying accept it. Not reluctantly, not angrily, just accept it.
If we more peacefully accepted those circumstances, we’d save our energy for better things than grousing—like perhaps working towards improving whatever it is. Just because we accept those circumstances calmly doesn’t mean we don’t work to change them. Systems are slow, and we can make them perform better.
But griping about slow systems isn’t a pre-requisite to making them better; in fact, it’s irrelevant. Pointing out that hard work went unnoticed doesn’t have to be done angrily. It’s better if it isn’t.
When we’re dissatisfied, we’re spending our time focused on the negative. This is terrible. That’s worse. And sometimes we extend that to the people around us—they’re wrong, misguided, deserving of criticism.
Here’s an easy antidote to grousing and negativity: be grateful.
It’s actually easy to find things to be grateful for. Once you do, people appear less annoying, less deserving of criticism, more like an asset and less like a liability.
Suggestion: start by noticing how even the most troublesome co-worker has a sense of humor, always holds the door to the elevator, or never comes late to a meeting. Notice that even the manager who cancelled your project abruptly is always an outgoing, proactive communicator.
In other words, instead of fixating on the narrow and the negative, broaden the view.
And don’t forget all those people you never notice, people you consider strangers. Chances are, they also contribute to your well-being in some way. Do they volunteer to take minutes at meetings when no one wants to? Do they prepare your made-to-order sandwich reliably? Do they publish up-to-date project status reports? We take all that for granted, but we don’t have to.
If we want to shift away from “nothing is ever good enough,” then starting with practical, realistic gratitude is an easy first step.
Of course, I’d be overlooking the obvious if I didn’t add that it’s Thanksgiving in a few days, a good time of year to start enjoying the benefits of gratitude.
Susan de la Vergne teaches Emotional Intelligence for Technical Leaders.