How to Stay Sane in An Insane Economy


August 2003

How to Stay Sane in An Insane Economy

CIDMIconNewsletter Helen Sullivan, Director of Technical Career Development, Collin County Community College District

There’s no doubt about it. We live in crazy times. Some may call them insane.

And one of the craziest places to be these days is at work.

You find pressure and stress everywhere you look:

  • Last year, the government exercised very visible public pressure on corporations to correct suspect accounting practices. This shake-up in corporations may have started at the top, but you’d better believe that this pressure rolled downhill to the lowliest person on the corporate totem pole.
  • Although 2003 hasn’t seen as significant a number of layoffs as 2002, the economy still has areas of instability, and no one really considers his or her job totally secure.
  • Some companies are still struggling to stay in business, and others who had planned to flex their entrepreneurial muscles have decided to postpone investing in new ventures. As a result, along with earlier downsizing, out-of-work employees have flooded a tight job market.
  • Survivors of layoffs may have kept their jobs, but at what price? They are under incredible pressure to perform, not only their normal work but also the work that remained from employees who left voluntarily or involuntarily.
  • Add to these factors the regular garden variety of negative circumstances that haven’t gone away-office politics, a difficult boss or co-worker, boring work, impossible deadlines, and no recognition for work done under increasingly stressful circumstances.

No Wonder I’m Depressed!

How you feel about these events and circumstances often determines how you respond to them. In other words, your attitude plays a significant role in how you handle life’s unexpected curve balls.

How do these reactions and feelings about negative events and circumstances manifest themselves in the workplace?

See if any of the following resonate with you:

  • Procrastination-Do you habitually arrive late for work or miss deadlines?
  • Emotions on the edge-Do you snap at co-workers or customers and find yourself in ongoing conflicts with other departments?
  • Frustration from lack of control over circumstances-Do you have more health issues than are normal for you, or do you find that you are seeking comfort in alcohol, drugs, or excessive eating?
  • Inflexibility-Do you cling to old ways of doing things, or do you revert to your default personality type?

Choose Your `Tude, Dude!

“Now that I’m all depressed thinking about my stressors and what I’m not doing to address them, is there anything I can do about them?”

Yes. I’m here to tell you that you can do something very effective… you can choose your attitude. Believe it or not, your choice of attitude can change your circumstances. One of the key elements of this choice is separating your emotions from your circumstances.

Abraham Maslow said, “One can spend a lifetime assigning blame, finding the cause `out there’ for all troubles that exist. Contrast this with the `responsible attitude’ of confronting the situation, bad or good, and instead of asking `What caused the trouble? Who was to blame?’ Asking `How can I handle this present situation to make the most of it? What can I salvage here?'”

There are examples all around us of how a difference in attitude impacted a circumstance.

If you read Main Street, a classic novel by Sinclair Lewis, and contrast the reactions of Carol and Bea to the small town where they live, you’ll see that one woman hated the town because of what it didn’t have and the other one loved it because of what it did.

One of my favorite Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes featured the irrepressible Ted Baxter, the buffoonish TV anchorman who didn’t possess many brain cells. One day, Mary was feeling depressed because her life seemed to be in a rut. Ted told her that he felt the same way until he woke up one morning and everything he did he did with enthusiasm-it was the same daily routine, only he took joy in every task. (It’s not humorous to read about it here, so you’ll just have to see the episode in re-runs on cable.)

Two good books that have striking examples about changes in attitude are Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment by William C. Byham and Jeff Cox and Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. The first book details a workplace that is drained by repressive working conditions but is turned around when the employees are empowered to do their jobs. The second book is a brief story about mice who go to the same spot daily looking for their cheese but find out one day that it is gone. When they change their thinking and discover that there’s more than one way to find cheese, their perspective on life changes.

In my own work experience, I found a good teacher of attitude at my first job. I worked for a small daily newspaper where regular complaints were phoned in to the circulation department. Customers couldn’t find their papers, the newspaper landed in a puddle, the dog ate it, someone stole it-you name it, someone was always unhappy about some aspect of their service.

The circulation manager listened patiently to each complaint over the phone and commiserated with what the customer was going through. By the end of the conversation, this manager not only made the customer feel better but he also followed through on each complaint and left the customer feeling satisfied. In other words, he changed their attitude.

Am I the Problem or the Solution?

If you are a manager in your organization, then you have a powerful influence over your group, and you set the tone for your organization. If your organization seems to have a negative atmosphere, look at your attitudes first before you start addressing your group’s collective attitude.

Think about the following:

  • I can’t control the actions of others, but I can control my reaction to them.
  • Am I willing to take a risk to make some changes in myself?
  • Do I have any false or unrealistic expectations?
  • Do I have any significant turnover in my group, and do I understand the reason for this turnover?

Here Are Some Options To Consider

After you’ve cleaned up any negative attitudes of your own, look externally to factors that may be affecting your group.

  • Employees are looking to you for guidance and stability in tough times. Take care of yourself so you can provide that guidance and stability to others.
  • Revisit the basics of what makes you a great manager. What are your strengths? Is it teambuilding, mentoring, career guidance, planning? Play to those strengths while you shore up your areas of weakness.
  • Where would you like to improve? Tackle one thing at a time. Now is the time when great leadership skills get a real workout. Practice situational leadership.
  • Revisit personality profiles and communication methods. Remember that office politics revolve around relationships, and relationships are tempered by personality types.
  • Have your listening skills taken a beating lately? Listen and then test for understanding. This is such a no-brainer, but when we are under stress, it’s one of the first skills to go out the window.
  • Be honest and authentic. You can be real and professional at the same time.
  • Foster strengths in your team, just like you are reinforcing your own strengths. People like to feel good about themselves and their talent.
  • Adversity can pull a group together. A trainer one time joked to me that his group performed at a high level when they fought a common “enemy.” Sometimes in the most stressful situations, the greatest creativity surfaces.

Get Those Creative Juices Flowing

If you need some help to get started in examining where you may have attitude issues with yourself or your group, try the following exercise.

Spend a few minutes answering the following questions and see if they lead you to some solutions:

  • Pick a circumstance or event where you remember that you were happy or content. What were the circumstances? What was your attitude? What affected your attitude that caused you to be happy? (Was it an internal change or an external influence?)
  • Pick a circumstance or event when you were unhappy or discontent. What were the circumstances? What was your attitude? What affected your attitude that caused you to be unhappy? (Was it an internal change or an external influence?)
  • Pick an attitude at work that you exhibit that you would like to change. (Some examples: intimidated, bored, depressed, frustrated, snappy, judgmental, victimized.)
  • How does this attitude impact how you relate to others? Do you exhibit a behavior that causes someone else to have a bad attitude?
  • Is there a bad attitude at work exhibited by an individual or group? Name it. What is the cause of this attitude? What changes could be put in place to turn around this attitude?
  • Do you have an experience where you, someone else, or a group did something that changed a bad attitude or working environment? Describe it.
  • Brainstorm a list of ideas on how you can get your employees involved in changing the work environment (attitudes). What would this new environment look like or feel like?

A good attitude may not be the most important trait a person develops, but it ranks right at the top of the list. CIDMIconNewsletter