Office life can be immensely frustrating. And one of the most disempowering feelings is that of having no control over what’s happening. Perhaps a decision is made at a higher level that makes no sense to you. Perhaps the wrong person is promoted, or given a project you really wanted. Perhaps something you have worked very hard on gets shelved for reasons that feel political and wrong.
Today I would like to think about ways to manage situations such as these when they arise, by taking a leaf out of Liam Neeson’s book, or rather his character in Taken, Bryan Mills:
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
This is a great quote because it illustrates perfectly the three things you can do when faced with a situation you have no control over:
- Don’t get stuck on the moral high ground
- Use your agency
- Focus on what you want to achieve
Here is what Liam does: he doesn’t waste time telling the bad guys they are bad guys, or trying to divine their motives. He goes back to what he can control and influence: his skills. And he focuses on his end game: getting his daughter back. If they give her back, that’s the end of it – no revenge, no “doing the right thing”. That’s all he wants – his daughter – and that’s his entire focus here.
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
Don’t get stuck on the moral high ground
The moral high ground is a lovely, comfortable, highly judgmental place. You can gather there with likeminded colleagues and talk about all the things that went wrong, all the bad decisions that were made. You can even tell the people concerned. But in the workplace, if you stay too long in the moral high ground, it becomes a way of abdicating your personal responsibility. It’s a way of saying: It’s not my fault. Things are being done to me.
Sure, mistakes were made. But what are you doing about it? What is your area of control?
The problem with this approach is summarised by Bradley Jackson, played by Reese Witherspoon in the TV show The Morning Show: “Once you villainize someone, there is nothing left to do but go to war with them.” Bradley/ Reese in the show is the queen of the moral high ground, of going chasing after windmills without a clear game plan. Ultimately, though she is told by her boss Cory: “You cannot keep yourself pure just by moving on every time someone disappoints you.” Bradley goes into battles she can’t win, and gets to a point where her only agency is to leave. She turns everyone into enemies she must do battle with.
If you feel you are leaning into your inner righteous crusader in the workplace, it’s worth examining what it is you are angry about, and what you might be able to do about it. Move the narrative away from the faults of other people, and from a black and white view of the world, and think about other angles, other perspectives. Then focus on what you truly have power over. Even if your anger is justified (and it probably is), it is powerless if you don’t create action from it.
Do you remember the James Dean movie Rebel Without A Cause? James Dean’s character Jim Stark is deeply unhappy about things around him. But he doesn’t use that anger. He mostly just shouts at his parents. It’s only at the very end, when he takes action, that he feels in control again.
Use your agency
In social science, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. If you think about the moments in your life where you have felt most frustrated and unhappy, chances are at least some of them were linked to feeling that your agency had been taken away from you. Maybe you got made redundant. Maybe your company changed strategy without your involvement and a lot of your work is now irrelevant. Or it could be something much smaller in everyday life – you are waiting for an important delivery and it gets delayed at the last minute. Whatever it is, it is something that happens to you outside of your control, and it often triggers incredibly strong negative emotions.
Think of Liam Neeson: his daughter has been kidnapped! That’s the ultimate loss of agency.
The most immediate way out of this situation is to regain some control over what’s going on. Regaining agency will get you out of your moral high ground into a place where you can focus on action, which immediately feels better to us as humans.
So think about it in that way: what do you control, and then what might you have influence over? You are being made redundant – can you negotiate some terms? Your work of the last few months is no longer needed – can you review what you have done to figure out how you might use some of it in other circumstances?
In the last scene of The Morning Show, Bradley has evolved, thanks to her co-host Alex who may not have her moral compass, but who definitely understands what power she yields, in a way Bradley doesn’t. When Alex starts going off script, Bradley turns to her and says:
“Are we doing this?”
“Yeah, you wanna?”
“We should just tell the truth quickly, they’re going to cut us off. We have one minute.”
She’s moved into action. She will not step on a soap box. She has one minute to create change.
And that brings us to the last, and most important part: what’s your end game?
Work out your end game
Bryan Mills has one end game: he wants his daughter back. The rest is irrelevant – catching the bad guys, for instance. Bradley wants the truth to be known widely. The rest becomes irrelevant – her own guilt, her feud with Alex. Jim Stark has no end game, and that’s a big part of his problem.
Take a mundane example – customer service complaints. There are two kinds of people who complain to customer service: people who just like complaining and need to demonstrate that they are right (they are firmly in moral high ground category), and people with an end game – looking for a discount, free stuff, some form of compensation. Customer service agents know this and once they’ve establish whether the complaint is valid or not, they move quickly to the next phase (or they should, if they are well-trained): how can we make this up to you?
In the context of a career, there will be multiple end games, of course. Your overall end game may be to be CEO of your company one day, or it could be to retire by the beach at 30. It’s probably useful to break this down into intermediate endgames. If your overall objective is to make enough money to retire early, then you are going to want to focus on the financial portion of a redundancy package. If you are keen to progress your career, you should ask for placement services, CV support, training, coaching.
Let’s imagine now you have been passed over for a promotion. Your end game may be to get promoted. What can you do to move towards that goal? Can you ask for feedback as to why you didn’t get the job? Are there other opportunities? Should you look elsewhere? Being angry about not being promoted is satisfying in the short term, but it will not get you anywhere new – and at some point it becomes a barrier to progress
Focusing on your end game will help you move past the inevitable anger and frustration and start thinking of the future – in your terms.
There will be moments in your career where you feel incredibly angry and frustrated. There is a chance that these happen when your agency has been taken away from you, and you feel powerless. If that’s the case, picture Liam Neeson in your mind and:
- Don’t spend too much time in your angry place
- Re-establish your agency and sense of control
- Focus on your end game