Q: Most of the time I'm pretty even-tempered, but some things at work set me off. They always have to do with being called to task for not following rules — the problem is that the rules are unclear or shifting so that it's hard to keep up with expectations. They're really minor things and I think I'm often overreacting (though my responses so far have been mostly internal). How can I get a grip on this?
Amber, 35, operations manager
A: It sounds like you have an expectation of a fair and predictable world. While this is reasonable, it's not always likely to occur, especially in the workplace.
All situations are not created equal, either. In some cases you may well be overreacting; in others, there may be other factors that make the event worthy of your reaction. Be careful not to discount your reactions.
Also recognize that you have reasons for your reactions. This may have been a rational response to events earlier in life. If so, take some time to process back through the past, focusing on letting go of this reaction when it no longer serves you.
Next, consider the point of view of other people in the situation. How would the person you think is unfair describe the situation? Think about whether they're making a good-faith effort to get work done. They may not be aware of old rules, may not have noticed the ambiguity of expectations, etc. They may just be in a rush and not thinking carefully, or it may not seem to be a big deal to them.
In that case, weigh your options for response. The most constructive would be to point out the inconsistency and request clarification — using a calm tone and neutral phrasing. This has the advantage of helping you avoid similar situations in the future, and positions you as a conscientious employee.
Sometimes, though, it's not as benign. If rules and standards are enforced inconsistently, or if the feedback is delivered in public or in a disrespectful way, there may be a power play going on. Or, at least, there can be damage done to your confidence and/or reputation. In this case, you need to stand up for yourself, but you need to be savvy about it.
Your boss could be a good starting point, assuming that he/she isn't the perpetrator. Talk through the situation, getting advice on the most effective way to manage the people involved and any collateral damage that may have occurred. This is especially important if you've lost your temper publicly or handled a specific situation in ways that didn't put you in the best light. And practice ways to explain the actions you took in a clear and nondefensive way.
Finally, develop an approach for managing new situations. Use the 10-second rule so you don't react too quickly. During that time, take a few deep breaths and consider the potential back story. Determine the best outcome for you, and then — and only then — take action.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.