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Frustrated at Work? Choose a Different Circle

 January 28, 2021   By John Rutkiewicz


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Frustrated at Work? Choose a Different CircleWe all have times when we get frustrated by what’s going on around us at work. Our frustrations and concerns can negatively impact our workplace satisfaction and productivity.

Take Harry, for example. Harry is a leader I coach. He manages a six-person team.

Harry is struggling these days. He has three key concerns that have been coming up in our coaching conversations:

  1. He has an open position on his team, but the organization (his boss and boss’s boss) may be shifting the headcount to another area of need.
  2. Harry is unclear about the objectives his boss wants him to achieve this year. He can’t seem to get a concrete definition or metrics from his boss.
  3. Harry recently got feedback about his own leadership. Senior leaders in the organization don’t see him having the “strategic vision” needed to move to the next level.

These concerns are causing frustration and unhappiness for Harry. They’re valid concerns, yet as concerns, they keep Harry stuck. He feels like a victim.

Fortunately, there is a way out....

Choose Wisely Among Your Three Circles

A simple, classic model about human experience can help in situations like these. The model involves three concentric circles. Like this:

Choose Wisely Among Your Three Circles

The outer circle is your circle of concern. It contains things you’re concerned about, things that impact you or your interests. These could be personal concerns, such as your health or job security. Often, they are concerns you have about aspects of your environment, such as resources allotted to you, other people’s decisions, or the way others behave.

The next circle is your circle of influence. This is where you have the ability or opportunity to influence your concerns in some way. The circle of influence always involves other people – how we relate, persuade, communicate, negotiate.

The inner circle is your circle of control. This involves the actions, behaviors and choices that are directly within your control. These include what you say, do and think.

Consider Your Circle of Concern...but Don’t Get Trapped There

When I encounter coaching clients who are struggling with a situation at work, the struggle is nearly always about something outside of themselves – in their circle of concern.

The problem is, when we focus too much of our mental and emotional energy on our concerns, we disempower ourselves.

A focus on concerns becomes a focus outside of ourselves, rather than a focus on what we can influence and control.

If we let it, our circle of concern becomes an easy trap. And that trap leads to complaining, lamenting and suffering. We get emotionally overwrought. We start venting to others. We feel victimized.

There’s no power there. It’s like complaining about the weather.

Accept It: Some Things are Outside Your Control

One fact of organizational life is this: You won’t always be happy with the actions and decisions happening around you.

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book, Triggers, he mentions a quote from Peter Drucker that Goldsmith says changed his life:

Every decision in the world is made by the person who has the power to make the decision. Make peace with that.
– Peter Drucker

The more we accept this reality, the easier it is to stop wasting time and energy in the circle of concern.

I’m not saying you should simply throw up your hands and resign yourself to every ebb and flow around you. You are free to have concerns – we all do. Actions and decisions outside of us often impact us.

Just don’t wallow there.

Take note of your concern. Be aware of your frustration. Then...

Embrace the Power of Your Two Inner Circles

The real answers to change lie within the two inner circles. No matter the situation, you always have the power of your influence and the power of your control.

Consider your concern (that thing outside yourself that’s bothering you) and ask yourself influence questions, like these (and write down your answers):

  • Who can I talk to that could help me address this concern?
  • Who can I talk to that can help me understand what’s going on?
  • Who can I ask for more information?
  • Who can I share my point-of-view with (in a constructive way) about this concern?
  • Who’s the decision-maker?
  • What do I want to have happen?
  • What would I suggest as alternative approaches?
  • What is the impact on me or others that concerns me the most?

Careful here: I’m not talking about complaining to people around the watercooler who can’t help. I’m talking about creatively and constructively connecting with decision-makers or the people with insights and perspectives who can help you understand the situation better. You can also talk with people who might be influenced by you to consider another way.

Next, ask yourself control questions (and write down your answers):

  • What can I do in relation to this concern?
  • What do I have control over that can impact or influence this concern?
  • What can I control about what I say – and how I say it – in relation to this concern?
  • What can I do to make this concern less difficult for myself or others?
  • What can I do to embrace this concern and approach it in a positive way?
  • What can I do to simply let go of my concern and move on?
Now...Take Action!

It’s said that “knowledge is power.” I don’t agree. Action is power.

With the answers that come to you from the questions above, decide what you’re going to do, then act.

For Harry, his shift away from his circle of concern and into his circles of influence and control led him to these actions:

  • Concern: Potential loss of headcount on team
    Action: Harry developed a presentation for his boss’s boss and other executives. It proposed hiring a new employee to work half time in Harry’s area and half time in the other department.
  • Concern: Unclear objectives:
    Action: Harry wrote a list of specific questions for his boss about each of the objectives. He scheduled a meeting devoted to discussing these questions with his boss to get more clarity and definition.
  • Concern: The perception of others that he lacks “strategic vision”
    Action: Harry scheduled lunches with three key senior leaders. His goal at each lunch was to learn how they defined strategic thinking, how they became strategic thinkers themselves, and what they wanted to see from Harry.

Was it a perfect plan? No. In the end, Harry didn’t get everything he wanted. Our actions won’t always get us what we want, fully satisfy us, or completely reenergize our happiness.

But lamenting over our concerns about our environment won’t either. So, when you have a concern about something “out there,” why not take control where you can, and try your best to move the needle?

Examine your circle of influence and circle of control. Then do something constructive.

The only other option you have is to keep complaining about the weather.


About the Author

John Rutkiewicz

Facilitator and Coach, Living As A Leader®

John has more than 25 years of experience as a leader and manager in fields ranging from sales and marketing to customer service, financial services and human resources. Since 1993, he has delivered facilitation, training, coaching and leadership-development services to help leaders and other business professionals reach higher levels of effectiveness and success.

Email John John's Bio

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