Warning: This Dangerous Thought Causes Harm

A “NO OUTLET” street sign near my house inspired this column, while I was walking my dog.

Whenever I believe that I have no choices in a tricky situation, I viscerally feel my confidence slip away. I also lose access to my mental resourcefulness and my connection with others. Can you recall being in the grip of that choiceless feeling?

I’ve helped many professionals find their way out of the helpless grip and develop their own mind/body muscles to overcome “No Outlet” thinking. It can be a Do-It-Yourself project too.

For example, a manager I’ll call Kyle disliked his job and his controlling manager, as well as his limited ability to make a difference. Although discouraged, he was not in a situation to seek a new job in the short term. By reviewing his assumptions and behaviors with a discerning eye, Kyle found numerous ways to reduce his frustration and increase his motivation and impact. He realized (via experimentation) that he could be better informed and connected by proactively sharing information with and learning more from colleagues without undermining his manager. Kyle also discovered he could reduce his boss’ detail-oriented bottlenecking by presenting information that better fit his boss’ preferences. Lastly, he found new sources of fulfillment by informally mentoring young hires and opting into a task force assignment.

When seemingly faced with a stubborn obstacle, professionals at any level can brainstorm alternative responses. Trust that something useful will emerge if you lighten your mental grip on the assumptions and beliefs that seem to constrain your options. This can involve:

  • a reframed diagnosis of the dilemma
  • a wildly unrealistic “what if” idea that then reveals more manageable tactics
  • choosing to walk away briefly, to clear your head and emotions
  • deciding to intentionally do nothing in the short term, while watching and learning

I try to let my own frustration serve as fuel in the search for feasible next steps even when I initially feel helpless and stuck. My favorite kinds of next steps are small, experimental, and sometimes in an unobvious direction from the stated goal. What are your favorite hacks to get unstuck – I’d love to hear them!