When you feel stuck: 6 tips to get unstuck

When COVID first hit, I think a lot of us either felt doomed or some level of motivation that we could get through this. For those of us who felt like we could ride out the storm, I am not sure many of us (although I think there were certainly some) who thought this might last a few months or possibly through the end of the year.

I was one of those people who thought we might see this through the end of the year but now it seems like we may be in for multiple years of a new way of working and living. It seemed unfathomable to me how this could have happened but since it was not in my control, I decided to set myself up for success as best as I could to endure new times.

As I talk to some of my friends, some of them are feeling a bit stuck. We have gone back to texting and talking; we have abandoned Zoom at this point. I mean how many of us who sit on video calls all day for work want to do this for personal reasons? We are stuck in our routines, stuck in our houses, stuck in our relationships, stuck in our jobs, stuck in endless loops of job applications and still not finding work. Whatever your “stuck” is, someone else is feeling that too.

I have to admit there have been times, and will be times in the future, where I have felt like I am in a holding pattern waiting for something external to change. I miss theater, I miss travel, I miss going to restaurants on a regular basis, I miss shopping, although I am doing this a little bit more behind my mask. At least this way, no one knows who is buying the latest motivational quote to hang on my office wall. I have surrounded myself with inspirational words on my walls but there are some days, I don’t feel it.

While all of these missed happenings have helped my pocketbook, it hasn’t helped my mental health. Feeling stuck is one of the worst feelings. You feel your situation, mood or even your life is not in your control – that things are happening to you and not because of your decisions and actions. You feel you have no options sometimes.

But, during a pandemic, what can you really do? I have thought about this quite a bit and here is what I have come up with that I am trying out myself.

  1. Feel stuck. I know…huh? My partner is a very optimistic and positive person but even he has days where he doesn’t smile. Sometimes you feel stuck or bad. Feel it. It is okay to feel stuck one day. Feel it and then let it go. I learned this same lesson in dieting. Denying yourself chocolate or ice cream full stop only leads to binging. Emotions are the same way. If you deny yourself a bad day then every day can become a bad day, which may lead to too much chocolate or ice cream, incidentally.
  2. Make to-do lists. Not everyone derives a great pleasure from making a list and then crossing things off of that list. I do. I get an insane amount satisfaction from drawing a line through text with a stroke of my pen. Even if you are not a list maker, become one. We always have so much to do if we think about the possibilities. Make daily, weekly or even monthly lists and take action. Actions can be simple. Go for a walk 3 times a week. Try meditation once this next week. Outline a new work proposal. Attend that virtual networking event. These do not have to be grandiose actions but even little ones can help us feel accomplished.
  3. Do something for someone else. A friend of mine who felt stuck in her rut told me once that she was sick of herself. Let’s face it, we see ourselves everyday. You try and get away but there you are. When you find yourself feeling this way, then go do something for someone else. There is nothing more satisfying than helping your fellow people. A neighbor of ours is building desks for schoolchildren in need for free. He is making a huge difference in our neighborhood. I am mentoring someone who has just entered the workforce find her path. Like our actions, acts of kindness can be simple as well. People are feeling pretty disconnected lately, what could you do to help people feel better about themselves? That will only lead to good things for you too.
  4. Discover something new. The best way to get unstuck is to throw ourselves into something new. Don’t have a clue what that could be? Read an article on Ikigai. I have written about this in context of finding your career but the same principles apply here. Find out what you love to do and what you’re good at doing. The intersection of these two items will help you discover what you can try. This can be for money or not for money. I know time may be slim for some of us juggling kids attending school from home, our jobs and homes but there is always time for those things that are important.
  5. Get started. I can’t think of a better time to write that book, paint that oil painting you have been thinking about, restore that piece of furniture, start that side hustle or kick off a new project at work. Our world will bounce back. It may look a little different but stop waiting for the world to come around because that may take a while. This is the perfect time to create something new and be ready when the world is ready.
  6. Stop and reflect. I am a learning and development professional and what I see missing from our lives is taking time to reflect on what we have learned and accomplished. We are so rushed to cross off the things on our to-do lists that we don’t take the time to think about the impact of what we did or think about other things we could do as a result. Taking some time to reflect on our actions and new projects will only lead to other ideas of what more we can do, what we can change or even what we can stop doing, which is also a healthy outcome.

Feeling stuck is natural especially in these times. It is up to ourselves to figure out how to break the stickiness of our situations. I never liked it when I received the advice that you need to just do it. Adopt the Nike slogan. Yeah, okay. “Just do it.” I would roll my eyes and felt I needed more than that.

If you have trouble with the “Just Do”, try helping someone else first to get your mojo going. Or, make a short list of to-dos just to get started on anything. If you have trouble with the “It”, read something on Ikigai. Listen to Cathy Heller’s podcast: “Don’t Keep Your Day Job”. Cathy and her guests have phenomenal advice for getting jumpstarted in a new direction. Listening to others’ stories can sometimes help you find your inspiration better than a pithy quote. Although some days, a “Let’s do this…” quote on a wall can make a difference too.

When you disagree with your boss: 7 things not to do

It is uncomfortable. It is irritating. It is even upsetting. It can make us tie our stomach in knots. What am I talking about? When the boss makes a decision we think is wrong. These decisions can range from your boss assigning work to someone else all the way to jumping into your work and changing the direction or philosophy of what you are working on. (This is particularly hard.)

I have had both happen and everything in the middle. When the boss makes a bad decision from our perspective, you want to scream at the wall or pour a glass of wine. Either way, disagreeing with your boss can be frustrating if not flat out maddening.

This is a tough situation to be in. If you are comfortable and have a good relationship, there are times when you need to manage up and disagree. Position your point of view. No one says that that boss can’t be wrong after all.

Good managers will listen to different opinions. Some even welcome it. Those are the secure leaders who appreciate when people push back on them. Then, there are managers who believe they are right 100% of the time. Those leaders are not only difficult to hold a discussion with but, oftentimes, there is no discussion.

Even if your manager is open to dissenting ideas, there are some things you want to stay away from to continue to be professional and to influence them to see your point of view.

  1. Don’t disagree with everything. I once had a team member that disagreed with everything I decided. I dreaded our weekly one-on-one meetings because I knew everything I brought to him would be rejected. The problem with this attitude is you can start to get labeled as someone who is negative or high maintenance. Even if you are a high performer, people will start to wonder if you’re worth “dealing with” if everything is a disagreement. For a manager, this is exhausting behavior. Pick your disagreements. Some are worth it and some really aren’t. Decide what matters most to you.
  2. Don’t make it personal. It can be very difficult to see that a decision that doesn’t go your way may not be personal. Admittedly, taking things personally has been something I have struggled with in my career. We can be comparative as human beings. If a decision favors someone else, we can think that person is more appreciated or I am not as good as that person. Don’t let these type of decisions define your self-esteem or shake your confidence. More than likely, there is another reason behind the decision that has nothing to do with you.
  3. Don’t get upset. Depending on the decision, it can be upsetting. Fight the urge to get upset. I have found nothing good comes from this in the workplace. This doesn’t mean you can’t make an impassioned plea for your theory or perspective, but don’t get visibly upset. One time, my boss pulled his 5 direct reports together to try and re-structure the group. First, I don’t know that this is ever a good idea. Someone’s feelings will always get hurt. The way the structure exercise was going, my colleague was having a significant chunk of work taken from her and moved under me. She started to cry because her entire career seemed to be taken from her with a make on the whiteboard. My manager had a challenging situation on his hands. We needed to stop and she was counseled off to the side. She told me later that she wished she could have made a business argument why that wasn’t a good idea instead of displaying her emotions.
  4. Don’t preach. Some of us have the urge to use our words to beat someone down. No one likes to be lectured…especially not our managers. When some of my team members need to influence me to choose a different direction, I respond much better to solid arguments without tears and without being preached to. Preaching means you aren’t listening and are not having a dialogue. Store your soap box and make a business case with open ears for hearing what your manager has to say.
  5. Don’t be passive aggressive. Then, there are those of us who don’t cry or lecture but say nothing. Early in my management days, I had an employee who would just clam up and refuse to say anything when she disagreed with me. She would then tell others how she disagreed with me but never told me to my face. This is behavior I just couldn’t endorse. Most managers don’t want to hear from someone else what your employee thinks of you or the decision you made. If you disagree, have some courage to present your point of view. This will get more respect than clamming up and gossiping to others.
  6. Don’t continue to bring it up. If your manager holds to his decision after a good discussion, don’t keep bringing it up In every meeting. And, while it is really tempting to say “I told you so” if your solution would have been better, resist that urge. Stay professional. I had a team member who would not let a decision go. He was like a dog with a bone if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Back to point #1, this can be exhausting for a manager. Let it go. Let decisions be made and work to make them real. Don’t keep revisiting the decision unless there is new evidence to open it back up. Sometimes, it can be okay to check in on a decision if the execution is bringing up new factors to consider. Most of the time, let’s the decision lie and move on.
  7. Don’t let it ruin your day. To the point above, let it go, for your own sanity. I used to get wrapped up how bad a decision was. I knew I had a better way but I was unable to convince my manager. I would carry this around with me. Through time and experience, I learned to not let these conflicts ruin my day. By all means, get a little irritated at the wall for a few minutes but then find a way to cut it off and move on. Remember, the boss has a right to be wrong.

There is usually an opportunity to respectively challenge your manager on a decision with a solid business reason delivered unemotionally. Most managers will be open to listen to your opinion. Keep in mind you don’t want to die on every hill. Pick the important ones to disagree over and go scale that hill. If you can’t influence your boss to go your way, find a way to accept it and execute against that decision by doing your best.

When your team member has capacity: 3 actions to take

In our current environment, people are either swamped or they have some free time for some or part of their work week. Some projects have been delayed or even cancelled due to our current circumstances. Some efforts are not needed anymore (at least for the near-term), such as those roles who support live events or travel.

Managing capacity is one of the hardest tasks a people manager has. It is a complex jigsaw puzzle positioning people to the projects they want to do and will excel at – the sweet spot for productivity and success. Much like a puzzle, getting the edges in place first – that is getting people anchored in the major part of their job helps – then, you can focus on other peripheral or unplanned projects in the middle that come up.

When someone feels they have capacity to take on more, they can be reluctant in sharing this with their manager. They may feel their job could be in jeopardy if they don’t appear busy or if they aren’t aligned to projects that matter. Here are more tips to help when a team member is afraid of losing their job. In times when no one is sitting next to one another anymore, it can be difficult for a manager to assess if someone has free time.

How do you know when someone has capacity if they don’t tell you? During one-on-one meetings I hold every week with each member of my team, we review status of current efforts, which usually gives a clear indication of capacity. I am always shocked to learn when I hear from professionals that their managers don’t meet with them. Or, they hold team meetings only and never talk to their team one-on-one until they have a performance review conversation required by HR.

In any time but especially in these times, one-on-ones are critical to staying connected and staying on top of capacity. I ask my team members to be Goldilocks and tell me about their workload. Is it enough? Is it too much? Is it just right? I don’t ask this every week as that would get old. But, when I get a sense that they are starting something new or more when they are tying something up, I ask the question.

When asked directly, most people will share the real picture. It is important for a manager to create a safe place for their team members to say that they may have some capacity to take on something else.

So, what do you do when someone says they have time on their hands?

  1. Understand current work.

If you’re not meeting with your team one-on-one, it is difficult to understand everything they are working in some detail. My team often tells me about requests that have come in, projects that are stalling due to various reasons – some in our control and some not, and times where work is getting to be too much. The first step is to know the current work your team is working on. Believe me. There is always something your team is doing that you are not aware of. I have also learned when my team member doesn’t have a lot to do. Seek to understand. Ask the Goldilocks question. You may be surprised at what you hear.

  1. Tease out other options.

When a team member tells me we are done with a project, this is the perfect time to review the scope that was originally documented to ensure everything has been accomplished. Most project-type work should have a start and end date. But, once the project is completed, there is always maintenance and continuous management and improvement efforts. Work with your team member to list these activities and determine who and how they can be executed. Nine times out of ten, I have found that when a team member thinks something is complete, it is not.

It can be effective to review the completed project with stakeholders to measure its impact – measurement is one of those areas I find can get skipped! Stakeholders will tell you when something isn’t completed or that a situation would be even better if we fixed “x”. To accurately improve and manage projects, products or processes, the work is continuous. If your team member feels something is done and dusted, challenge them and brainstorm what else is missing or can be accomplished.

  1. Get creative.

If someone is truly untapped or not busy, then it is time to think about how to re-direct their role. We just had such a case where someone was brought on to manage a project that has been delayed indefinitely. Instead of thinking about letting that person go, the management team is coming up with other projects this person can participate in and add value while the other project is delayed. Consulting firms are very skilled at re-deploying or maximizing people who are “on the bench” – not deployed on a project. They will align consultants to internal projects while new external business gets developed. The same principle could be true here. While other projects are on hold, what other internal efforts could be pushed forward. Now is a great time to focus inward.

The more people that know someone needs work, the more likely that person is to be engaged on something meaningful. For every team member that may not have a lot to do, there is a team member who is drowning. Looking at a broader department, not just your team, allows creativity in how to use someone. Sometimes, we become too siloed to think outside of our team but many people have transferable skills and getting creative about how they can be aligned helps to retain good talent and accomplish what the organization needs.

In these volatile times, it may seem counterintuitive to shout out when someone has capacity. As a manager, this is critical to keep someone talented on your team. To ignore the situation could ultimately to lead to that person leaving or even potentially being let go. As a employee, letting your manager know you have free time could open doors for you. You never know what project or opportunity can come from speaking up. It is time to be brave and ask for more opportunity.

When your toes are being stepped on: 6 questions to ask before getting defensive

Some days I feel like we are all just a little more sensitive to others stepping into our “turf”. We try hard every day to add value and when someone starts a program like ours, starts meeting with our clients or outright duplicates a process or technology project, we can get our fur up.

Especially in times of stress where some of us feel like our jobs may not be secure, we can become territorial. This happens to the best of us — even the most laid back individuals can find themselves getting protective over their scope or team when being encroached upon.

I had this situation many years ago when I first joined a very large organization. There were so many teams and divisions, that duplicating effort and stepping on toes seemed inevitable. However, I am so committed to efficiency and helping people take pride in their work, that I wanted there to be clear lines of ownership and scope.

During my first week at this company, in a newly created job, I had another individual on the team tell me she was creating the strategy I was hired to create. Now, this is a pretty blatant example of stepping on toes. She knew I was hired to do this activity and I was pretty irritated by her behavior.

I went to my new boss with this information and his response was to tell me that this culture is like that. People compete with one another internally for work all the time and I just needed to accept it and try to create a better strategy to outshine her.

Now, you at home, if you’re playing along, can certainly tell me how wrong that response was. It also won’t shock you to know that I left that culture pretty quickly as that wasn’t for me. It just rubbed against my sense of fairness, kindness, congeniality and efficiency. I mean…why have two people doing exactly the same thing? Seemed like a waste of time and money not to mention the conflict it created on the team that lead to an unhealthy environment.

This example aside, this situation does happen from time to time — sometimes explicitly and sometimes by accident. However it comes about, I find that keeping a few things in mind before charging in with your fists raised to defend your territory can be helpful to minimize conflict and reach a sound conclusion and possible compromise.

When approaching this type of situation, ask yourself the following questions in the order below:

#1 Are you clear on your job?
This may sound a little silly but when someone is moving into your space, ask yourself if that work is really part of your job. Talk to your manager so you are clear that you own the space the other person may be creeping into. There was one time where I thought something was under my direction when really that was my perspective not shared by others. This led to a good conversation about who should own the work. Ultimately, we made the decision together that I should own the effort. But, this circumstance allowed for that dialogue to happen and created clarity on my role, which was a good outcome.

#2 Are they aware of your job?
Another potentially obvious question but, really, I have had this happen more than once in my career. Someone starts executing on a program without any knowledge that you are doing the same or that you have ownership over that type of program. Approaching people with an open mind and kindness first only helps minimize conflict. Give the benefit of the doubt that people may not know you are working on something. Sometimes our work is so close to our face that we think everyone else must know what we are doing. Not so. In certain situations, I have had the other person completely back off and stop what they were doing when they found out my team was handling it.

#3 Who asked them to work on this?
Another key question to ask the person is who asked that they take on the project? I have heard several answers to this question in my day. 1) No one. They thought it was a gap and they had a good idea. If so, then refer to questions #1 and #2. 2) Their manager asked them to do it. Refer to the previous questions and ask question #4. 3) A senior leader asked them to step up and take on the project. Then, definitely proceed to the next question.

#4 Are their goals the same or different from yours?
If the other person appears to be in your lane, ask them what their objective is. It could be they are trying to accomplish something completely different than you. It could be the leader who asked them to tackle this had a good intention or business reason behind the request. It could be, unfortunately, that this person doesn’t have a whole lot on their plate and this was identified as a good opportunity. Perhaps the project is in your remit but you have zero capacity to take it on. Asking about goals helps to determine intent and outcomes, which should drive ownership. If the goals are very similar, then proceed to question #5. If the goals are very different, then still proceed to question #5. The work could be split between the two of you.

#5 Would they partner with you?
If they want to work on this project or have sponsorship of someone in the organization on equal plane as your sponsor, then ask if you can partner. This has been my best tactic in these situations and has always been a good compromise. I personally believe projects, programs, products, whatever your end result, benefit from more than one brain. If there is an opportunity to work together to achieve the same outcome, then propose that. Be clear on roles and responsibilities on the effort so the toe stepping doesn’t continue on a tactical level too.

#6 If nothing else works, can you escalate?
If none of the questions lead to a reasonable conclusion, then you may have to escalate as I did in my pervious role. When leaders create an environment that leads to internal competition, duplication of effort, and, eventually, a toxic situation, it may be time to escalate or even exit. Some people love competition but a lot of us don’t want to compete for our jobs everyday. That is stressful and leads to burnout or resentment.

Stepping on toes will happen in a decent sized organization as we are all human and seize opportunity. Being clear on our roles, others’ roles and the outcomes, will help us figure out where work should be aligned and can also create partnerships that are healthier than competition.

When your team wants to connect to the big picture: 7 Quick Tips to make that connection

More than ever, teams may be struggling to connect to the larger vision and mission of the organization. Perhaps that has even changed given today’s circumstances or the mission is the same but the ways we execute on that mission have changed.

I have had a few conversations lately that result in people asking why we are focusing on something; why is this project suddenly so important; why should I stop doing what I am doing to pick up something else.

Knowing and communicating the “why” cannot be underrated. We all know this but, oftentimes, we get caught up in executing and meeting deadlines that we forget to establish the objective and purpose behind why we are doing what we are doing.

I have even caught myself a couple times saying lately that we really need to get things over the finish line because we committed to do them. While it is a valid reason to finish what you start, it never hurts to review the business reason behind our work.

As a manager, we never want to fall into the parent trap of “Because I said so…” or “Because our leader says so.” That is a cop out. It is also an opportunity to think about or ask your leader about the why. If I don’t know the why as a manager, then how can I expect my team to know it?

I have written before that this is a good time to review priorities to see if they are the highest impact projects to be working on. As we continue to stay in a new way of working, I find reviewing this quarterly will help people stay connected to bigger picture.

Some companies have evolved their mission to be more about keep people connected, becoming more efficient, providing service in a high touch way virtually. Whatever the strategy is, find ways to connect the work to those new strategies. And, if the work you are doing doesn’t connect, maybe revisit if this is the right time to pursue.

To help your team connect to the big picture strategy, here are 7 quick tips that I like to follow and need to keep in the forefront to make sure everyone knows the “why”:

  1. Ask your team. If my team doesn’t understand why we are doing something, I first ask them to tell me what they think. Sometimes, I get an answer: “I honestly don’t know.” Well, that is honest and then I know we have work to do. More often than not, they actually come up with their own answer. That provides an opportunity to discuss, agree and tweak, if necessary.
  2. Break out the deck. I find it helpful to review that department/company strategy deck that always gets presented at the beginning of the year to review the top priorities. Discuss with the team if we can fit our projects underneath one of the priorities. If not, then ask yourself should it be on the list to do right now.
  3. Plan as a team. Have you had a team planing session where you create your purpose, scope and strategic alignment? Or, is this something you did back in November? It is time to do this again. I will even admit that I have been so busy that I have gotten away from doing team planning and ensuring our efforts are aligned to the broader strategy. People support what they create and being involved in setting team priorities helps them stay connected and feel a part of the team.
  4. Invite a guest. To help connect our efforts to a bigger picture, I have asked others from the business and different areas of the company to come speak to my team. This helps us see a different part of the organization. If you work in a support function like I do, hearing from the front line is invaluable to know if what we are doing helps them achieve their goals.
  5. Ask others. Similar to the above, recap your projects and priorities and share that with others to get their opinions. Ask if they feel this scope of work meets their needs and will help them accomplish their strategy. If possible, have a steering body or group of people you can bring your plans to for validation on a regular basis. I am finding especially now that this group of advisors is more important.
  6. Articulate objectives in your project. In one of my project management posts, I talk about creating objectives. Having the high-level strategy and business objectives defined at the beginning of a project helps keep it aligned. It is a step often skipped as we jump to creating and executing on the solution. Tying effort back to the strategy keeps people connected to the overall purpose.
  7. Schedule virtual connects. Now is a great time to encourage your team, and yourself, to have virtual coffee chats with people to ensure you are aware of the big picture and aligning everything you’re working on to that vision.

What happens when there is no “deck” or strategic goals or statement to get behind? While most companies have these, I have certainly worked for some where they did not. Or, if they did, they were not explicitly shared. I say create one…or, at least create one for your group. Align this with your leader and others and use it as a guidepost. There is nothing wrong with taking some initiative here to help connect the team to a higher purpose.

Staying connected to the larger picture can be challenging if it continues to change in our current environment. Staying connected to the strategy means staying connected to the people. You cannot have one without the other. Whether individually or as a group, I encourage you to know what your sales, service, product, quality goals are….whatever your industry. If you don’t, start meeting up with people and ask.