How to Talk About What You Need at Work

In my blog last week, I talked about how important it is to find a job that’s truly “right” for you. The end of that piece included how to figure out exactly what that was, but I mentioned that—even if you’ve realized you really are doing the thing you’re meant to be doing in the world—you might still be experiencing a lack of morale at work. My guess was that your issue might simply be a need to sort through interpersonal issues with the people on your team. I promised I’d follow up on how you might do that well, so that’s exactly what I’m doing this week.

Let’s start with a story—

The Beginning of a Long, Hard Journey

Years ago, while sharing some frustrations about my current situation at work with my executive coach, Evan Roth, I said something like:

My boss doesn’t truly understand the pressure I’m experiencing. I need more help and I’m not getting it. I really want to deliver for our clients, but I’m just not getting the resources I need and I don’t feel supported by our leadership. My team is frustrated with me because they don’t know what little I’m working with and how much I’m really putting into the business. If they did, they’d be working so much harder to help carry the load. Meanwhile, clients are asking for more from us every day, and all I can tell them is that I’m doing everything I can to get them what they need. I’m genuinely stretched from every angle and I don’t know what to do about it.

Evan, of course, replied with a question:
How did it go with your boss and colleagues after you had this conversation with them?

And I, of course, responded how so many of us do:
Oh, I haven’t shared any of this with them. My boss should know that I need these things. She sees me every day. Doesn’t she know her business well enough to understand what I need? And my colleagues also see me. They know how much I’m working and how much I’m engaging with my boss. If anyone should understand the pressures in front of me, it’s them.

That’s when my work with Evan really began.

Playing the Victim Card

Once he spotted my pattern, Evan began to walk me through what it means to see ourselves as victims.

So many of us believe that our own happiness, fulfillment, and joy are at the mercy of others. As you might notice from my conversation with him, everything I said framed me as the victim—both my initial statements about what I was feeling and my response about why I hadn’t shared any of those feelings with the team.

My boss doesn’t understand the pressure I’m under.
My team has no idea what I’m dealing with.
Our clients have no idea how hard we’re working for them.
If they did know, they would really understand what was going on and everyone would be okay.

You’re human, so I imagine you understand this well. This is the basic framework for victim mentality, the way we offload responsibility for outcomes (and our own power to affect change) onto others:

  1. “X” doesn’t understand me (e.g., one person, in particular, or the even more dubious “no one understands me”).
  2. If “X” did understand me, they would give me what I want and need.
  3. If that happened, then I would be okay.

Yet, even though we know this pattern, we still get stuck in the victim cycle over and over again, and we see it constantly play out in our lives.

Not only does this have terrible implications for ourselves, but for our businesses and our communities.

What to Do About It

1) Make sure you know what you need.
One of the hardest parts about communicating your feelings to others, even in business, is actually knowing what it is you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and what you need in return. Like the story I shared with Evan, just going to my boss and telling her I was frustrated wouldn’t have been incredibly productive. I expected her to know what I needed when I wasn’t even sure of it myself. So you have to actually do the work necessary to identify what’s off and what would help you feel more supported or heard or whatever it is that’s causing challenges for you. Not only does this give others more clarity on what you’re experiencing, it actually offers a solution to the problem. I think this is one of the absolute most useful tools in business and life. Your bosses, colleagues, partners, and friends will all appreciate hearing not just, “This isn’t going well,” (which often feels accusatory) but, “This one thing hasn’t been working for me and I have a few ideas about how we might change that could help me out.” So, identify your feelings and needs first.

2) Bring it up.
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: People can’t read minds (or, most of them can’t). It’s probably clear by now that my tendency is to just keep things to myself, expecting others to magically understand what I need. But unless others know what we need from them or where we’re struggling with our relationships, we’ll continue to be a victim. When I do finally open up, I find it really helpful to point to a shared goal, which helps remove a lot of the emotionality involved when sharing feelings. As an example from my story above, with my boss, I might say something like, “I’m realizing that the business is hurting because we don’t have enough resources.” It’s a shared goal—the business. And by creating that shared goal, we can then both march toward fixing it together. There’s also a big difference between framing your challenges as “I’m not getting what I need” and “I need ‘X’ in order to thrive in my role.” The former continues to paint you as a victim while the latter communicates clear needs and boundaries that are not only healthy but help others know how to best support you. More importantly, it gives the people around you a chance to negotiate around whether they’re able to provide those needs and to know when they might need to call on external support to help when they can’t—or that they simply aren’t able to meet your needs and it might be time to move on.

3) Then, wait.
Things don’t typically change overnight. I always get frustrated at this, but people are creatures of habit. Research says that humans need to hear something seven times before it really settles in, so it often takes a long time for people to stop behaving the way they have been or to find the resources you requested. When patterns haven’t shifted yet, once you’ve voiced your challenges, try to gently nudge them a few more times.

4) And then watch the change happen or make the change yourself.
Keep watching the person and business. If things do change, even remotely, great. But if things don’t change, maybe you need to be the one to actually take action. I know someone whose boss wouldn’t let them take a vacation, ever. Seriously. And what did they do? Nothing. They just stayed in the job, believing that it was their only destiny. They could have changed jobs, truly. But they stayed around.

If we’re in a situation that isn’t changing, we may have to take the first step of actually stepping away from whatever we’re in. Not everyone can meet our needs, and that’s okay. Deeply painful at times, but okay. The goal isn’t that everyone gives us everything we need; the goal is being honest, voicing our needs when they come up, and finding the people, places, and jobs that support us and are willing to work through the challenges and do everything they can to help us when they come up. When that isn’t happening, it’s okay to move on.

If you want even more insights and action steps around this, Evan introduced me to a great book called Energy Leadership. How have you handled similar battles around victim mindset? If you share, I’d love to possibly include it in my newsletter next week.