Sometimes we find ourselves in tough situations on a project, on a team, or in a company. We want to hide in our work, complain to our colleagues, and do everything besides deal with the issue(s) or situation. These problems likely won’t go away on their own, so how might we become more resilient — and even thrive — when things get hard at work?
Before I joined OpenTable I was a product designer at Pivotal Labs, where I taught client product teams lean UX and agile methods. Every 3–12 weeks I would join a new client team that I had to quickly get to trust me, not to mention value design and research. There were countless times I felt I was in impossible situations. Over time, I realized that the work would always be challenging but that changing my perspective would help me be a more effective leader and positive influence on a team. I also saw that with every new team and project, I had a rare opportunity to test different ways of working together better.
Here are my time-tested techniques for staying kind, resilient, and creative when things get hard at work.
1. Figure out how you feel
Check in with what you’re feeling
Take some breaths. Let emotions run their course. Then ask: “What’s bothering me and why? What would positive change look like?”
Know that emotions are a fuzzy reflection of reality
Emotions can cloud your ability to see what’s truly going on. To do good work, you need to understand your emotions and then focus on resolving the problem or issue. If you’re upset, how effective will you be at solving a problem?
If you ignore or suppress your emotions, they’ll surface later and it won’t be pretty. Have you ever said something curt to a co-worker and then realized it wasn’t about them? Or, do you know unhappy coworkers and actively avoid them because they make everyone around them feel terrible?
Use post-it notes
When I have a lot of thoughts and feelings swirling in my mind, I’ll find a quiet place and write one feeling or thought per post-it note. Then I’ll group them by topic and think about how I can solve them or get help. Organizing thoughts help me to feel calmer and more empowered.
2. Have a professional north star
Companies, teams, and working relationships will always have ups and downs. Figure out what’s important to you and your career. Is it to do good work that you’re proud of? Build tools that help users? The four parts of my north star are: to always be learning, grow designers into leaders in the product development process, build diverse teams to solve problems that we couldn’t have figured out in silos, and do work that improves users’ lives.
For example, a common frustration for designers is when their designs don’t ship. I used to feel disappointed, but when I remembered my north star I felt proud of the complex problems I solved and what I learned from my team. So when things get hard, check in on your north star. Are you still moving in that direction? If so, these tumultuous waves will feel less heavy. If not, get creative about how you might get the kinds of experiences you want. Ask your manager for help with this too.
3. Build a brain trust
Ask for help and input from more experienced people, inside and outside the company. (You’ll be surprised how common your problems are.) Before I became a design manager, I wanted to ramp up my learning so I joined three Slack groups on design leadership and interviewed five design managers. Now when I ask for help or best practices, I have access to a number of thoughtful perspectives and ideas.
4. Set the right tone
Speak with a positive tone
When things get difficult, you’re not the only person who feels unhappy. You’re part of a team, and the longer your career, the more teammates look to you to understand how they should feel about a situation. If you act angry and frustrated, your team will model your behavior, which will ripple and amplify across teams. It’s important to acknowledge when things aren’t easy and speak with a balanced, positive tone that helps teams feel heard, grounded and clear.
Be light-hearted and focused in conversations and meetings
How we show up in a room makes an impact. You’re responsible for the emotion or tone you bring into a room or conversation. People WILL pick up on your emotions. Keeping it light and focused helps your group feel curious and creative in coming up with solutions or ideas.
Keep your body language open and engaged
When things are hard it’s easy to close ourselves off and to stop listening to one another. I make an effort to physically demonstrate I’m listening to someone. I’ll consistently nod, take notes, and make eye contact. I also stay off my laptop for most of the meeting or conversation. If I catch myself crossing my arms while listening, I’ll uncross them. Keeping your body language positive not only tells someone you value what they’re saying, but helps you be open-minded to new ideas or connections. When things are hard, you need to gather all the creative ideas and inspiration possible to solve difficult problems.
5. Be a co-leader
Facilitate and lead conversations
Sometimes we expect a product manager or more senior person to lead a conversation or address the big issues. Situations vary across companies, but if you see an issue, do something about it. Either bring it up to someone more experienced or ask if you can practice facilitating a discussion.
If you’re doing any kind of work in product development, you enjoy solving problems in your area of expertise. Embrace this skill as you scale problem-solving to the team level.
Start by drafting an agenda and running it by someone more experienced in facilitation. Then lead a meeting to collectively identify the top issues and address them one at a time together. Next, introduce ways to rotate the work so it’s not only your responsibility. As you move up in seniority, you’ll often do this.
Be a problem solver, not only a problem-pointer-outer
It’s easy to go from identifying problems to assigning blame. It’s up to all of us to help move the conversation beyond pointing out all the problems or issues. Problems are simply risks that must be recorded, prioritized and mitigated. To do this, describe the problem, its impact on the work, business or team, and then ask “How might we…” Assign team members to address these issues. If appropriate, post a physical artifact of these issues in a visible area so they’re not forgotten. Review this artifact weekly to track progress.
Expect and address conflict
There’s going to be conflict and issues on every project and team. When it happens, quickly address the issue. These can be hard conversations but it’s better to get issues out in the open because others may likely share these concerns. Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability are great resources for hard conversations.
6. Have empathy for the people around you
See the good in people
No, really. Look past the tone of voice and the friction you’ve had with them in the past. Is their intent positive, meaning will it improve or support the product you’re working on together? Do their goals align with yours? If so, you have common ground and a great starting point for a discussion. Verbally appreciate that they want to move in the same direction and then find ways to explore ideas and solutions together.
Meet people where they are, not where you want them to be
Everyone is growing and learning. Everyone is at different points in their careers. Manage your expectations and requests. Only then should you find ways to define what improvement would look like. I re-learn this lesson about once a week.
Keep emotional chain-smoking to a minimum
You know what this is. This is when you and your co-workers get together and complain about a higher-up, colleague, or issue. You’re venting, you’re amplifying each other’s emotions, and you’re feeling validated and acknowledged. It feels so good! I do this too. Everyone needs to vent sometimes, but the situation will not change if this is the only thing you continue to do.
Tell people you appreciate them
When things are hard at work, it can feel like no one sees your work. Show people you see them and recognize their hard work and contributions. It’ll come back to you, I promise.
7. Practice self-care
Say yes to yoga, meditation, therapy, exercise, seeing friends, making art, and practicing not talking about work. You know this already.
8. Know this isn’t forever
Things will get hard, but they will also pass or change. A tough situation can feel like forever but situations will likely shift in weeks or months.
There are and will continue to be hard moments in your career(s). How you work through these moments will build resilience and grit in yourself and the teams around you. And your efforts may help resolve tough situations or at least make them more manageable.
You’ve got this.