A Different Perspective on Unfair Treatment & Employee Burnout

Four Steps to Changing Your Work Environment

As I outlined in my article yesterday, the majority of articles you’ll read focus on how companies should change to prevent employee burnout.  I agree 110% that it’s critical at this point for companies to step up and make changes; however, in this series, we are going to turn that inside out and look at how employees might make a few adjustments to create dramatic and positive changes to prevent burnout.

Unfair treatment is the first element that most experts cite as a major contributor to employee burnout. Here’s a question to ponder.  Is it possible that our internal patterns might be clouding our perception of fairness?  (That little voice may be shouting at this point, “It really is all their fault – they are so unfair!”  And maybe that is true, but don’t you want to make sure you are being fair to the situation and to yourself?)

One of the choices we have when faced with any problem is to change our perception. People sometimes resist this, believing they are right in what they see, hear, and remember. The truth is that our perceptions are often inaccurate, particularly in emotionally charged situations. One way of being more open to changing our perceptions is to consider the ways in which they may be inaccurate, or even, (Yes, I’m going to say it!) wrong.  So, would you rather be “right” or would you rather be happy.

It is a fact of life that we will all be subject to things that seem unpleasant or unfair at some point – a fender bender, a sudden illness, an unfaithful partner, or a boss who doesn’t see your worth.  You will likely feel unfairly disadvantaged and your brain will start signaling that it’s not happy.  If these feelings of perceived victimization are left to fester, you could end up seeing other areas in your life as unfair.

It’s time to change the story before your story changes you.  Here are four simple actions you can take to change how you feel about your work environment.  But wait!  You said this article was four steps to changing your work environment.  Reality check.  Your world is defined by the way you feel and think about something. It is your personal perception – position, attitude, or interpretation – of events biased by memory and emotion. When you change your perception of anything, your perceived reality of that thing changes.

Option 1: Consider the Missing Details

You often don’t notice major details in your environment.  When you are upset about an interaction or a situation, consider that maybe you don’t have all the facts. It’s at least a possibility. There’s too much happening in our world — visually, auditorily, electronically – and our brains process the minimum we need in order to function.  Consider the fact that your brain will never have all the important details surrounding any situation in real time; and the memory of the situation is even more distorted.

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of The Invisible Gorilla (great book) did some interesting research on this subject. In one study, they found that half of people watching a video failed to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit walking through a basketball game when they were told to count the number of passes between players.

Your brain is always filling in the missing blanks with “most likely” details based on previous “memories” that may not be accurate.  Pulitzer prize winning author, Kathryn Schulz calls our brains the original autocorrectors.  In her book Being Wrong she explains how we constantly take sensory messages from the world and unconsciously alter them. Schulz gives dozens of examples how our perceptual processes are founded on filling in gaps and leaping to conclusions.

Here’s an example: Did you notice the typo within these seven words? Most people skip right over it.

ACTION: It’s time to take control and fill in the blanks differently.   Take a situation you perceive as unfair, identify possible details that your brain may have missed, and make up a new story.   Purposefully fill in the missing details to create a positive twist on the situation.

Option 2: Change Your Mood

Your perceptions are closely tied to your current emotional state. If you are looking at a situation as unfair when you’re in a negative mood, you might be looking at yourself and others more negatively through dirty, gray lenses.  When you are sad, frustrated, or angry, you tend to expect (and even create!) more negative outcomes.  You are likely to see yourself as having little to be happy about and are more attuned to painful events.

When your mood changes, your view of the future is more optimistic, and you see the many reasons you have to be grateful, though nothing changed other than your mood.

ACTION: Smile.  Even if you don’t feel like it.  Research shows that even the simple act of smiling will shift your mood to a more positive feeling.  While you’re smiling, remind yourself that when you are in a different mood, your view might be different.  Take a breath, take a walk, take moment to remember something positive; it could change your perspective.

Option 3:  Mission Possible – Check the Facts

It’s really difficult to have the whole truth. The man who cut you off in traffic may have been swerving to miss a deer. The supervisor who didn’t give you that raise may have saved the company from layoffs, and the co-worker who forgot to thank you might have been distracted with worry about their sick child at home. Sometimes you are upset, because you give assumed meanings to events rather than staying with what you can actually observe to be true.

If you have it set in your mind that you are being treated unfairly, you will look for every piece of evidence you can find to prove this as true; and the tendency will be to overlook or discount the evidence that says the idea is not accurate.  This is normal and it’s called confirmation bias.

ACTION:  Check all the evidence. Is the way you see the situation factual? Could you be missing a critical piece of information? Is there a way to gather more facts and test your thoughts in a more objective way?

Option 4:  Stop the Brooding – That’s for Chickens

Brooding – thinking deeply and constantly about something that makes one unhappy.  Your mind rehearses the play-by-play of a negative situation big or small (i.e. How you should have handled that conversation; how unfair it was that you missed out on that promotion). Even when everything is going well, we might hyper-focus on the one negative thing that happened during that week, like the time our boss criticized us in front of our colleagues.

Brooding goes both ways.  Looking back on negative events, you become more frustrated, sad, and angry which has negative effects on the current moment.  Looking forward, one might brood on the possibility of an event happening. If you worry that you are going to be treated unfairly, every time you think about it, you reinforce your belief that you will be treated unfairly. This, of course, will add to your misery, though it’s only a change in your perception.

ACTION: When you get something stuck in your craw – for whatever reason – stopping the brooding can be difficult. When you catch yourself brooding, immediately change the scenery to disrupt your thoughts.  Look at a funny YouTube video, take a walk outside, close your eyes and listen to your favorite song, smell some flowers.

If you’re a constant brooder, schedule a worry break.  Give yourself 15 minutes a day to worry and make the most of it. Put it on your calendar!  This allows for a time and place to think about all your biggest fears and insecurities.  If you find yourself brooding outside of the scheduled time, make a note of the topic and remind yourself that you will have time to contemplate later.

CONCLUSION: While these four steps might not change your workplace environment, they will change your perception of fairness in the workplace.  Changing your perception for just a moment, changes your reality for that moment and in doing so, shifts your emotions.  Emotions drive your behavior and effect the behavior of those around you.  Like a drop in the pond….  Change your world one moment at a time.


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