Three Conversations to Improve Your Workplace

Are you having a bad week at work, or maybe a series of bad weeks? Do you hopelessly suspect that things will never get better? Have you sadly concluded that the pay you receive is not in exchange for your output, but rather for your willingness to tolerate misery?

If so, I know you don’t want to hear about how the emotional state of a single person can influence a whole group. If I tell you to buck up, think positively, and set a better example for those around you, you’ll stop reading immediately. You’ll probably also come up with a few choice nicknames for me that I wouldn’t want my mother to hear.

So I’m not going there. Forget it. You don’t have to buck up, think positively, or set a better example. Instead, I just want you to have three simple conversations next week. I don’t even care who you talk to, as long as you discuss these three topics.

1. “What I am trying to accomplish is . . . “

A huge amount of workplace dissatisfaction — not to mention lost productivity — comes from a lack of clear purpose. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, you are destined to be frustrated by feelings of uselessness.

Pick a purpose! If you’re not sure, take your best guess, and then tell someone what you think you’re trying to produce. Don’t discuss the steps you’re taking, like email or meetings, just talk about the output itself. Summarize all of your most important output in about 90 seconds. Much more, and you risk losing your listener’s interest. Much less, and you risk sounding cliché.

Depending upon your listener, you might choose to state it with all the certainty of your most important mission in life, or you might choose to state it tentatively, as if you’d be happy for someone to correct you (I suggest the latter approach when speaking with your manager). Either way, you’ll be reminding yourself, and your listener, about why you’re bothering to show up.

2. “What I’m doing matters because . . . “

If you don’t want to feel like a hamster on an exercise wheel, you need to attach the work you do to a real benefit. This can be a benefit to the company, a benefit to society, or a benefit to you personally. All three would be ideal, but you should find at least one.

Tell someone the why behind your work. Maybe your tireless processing of expense forms allows other salespeople to travel overseas, find buyers for company products, and enhance the bottom line. Maybe your quality inspections or document audits lead to babies being safely strapped in their car seats as per manufacturer recommendations. Or, maybe your work as a nurse gets you the experience you need to finally become an ultrasound technician.

Reach if necessary. Take pains to find at least one reason your work is worth doing, even if you’re not particularly enjoying it at the moment. On the other hand, don’t brag. You’re not trying to show off, or show anybody up. You’re simply discussing the ways in which your work matters to you, your company, and your society at large.

3. “I can tell I’m making progress when . . . “

What you’re doing, and why, are not quite enough. You also need to experience yourself making headway toward your goals. Otherwise, your days will blend together in an endless wave of to-do lists worries, and discussions, and you’ll cease to have the experience that your presence in the workplace matters.

Seeing your own progress is not the same as demonstrating progress to others. Your manager may require a status update at the end of the month, but you need to experience your progress every day, even every hour. Otherwise you will vacillate between a detached disinterest in your goal, when it is far off in the future, and full-scale panic about that goal when the future arrives faster than anticipated.

Seek simple cues, like the accumulation of completed forms in your out box, a column of check marks on your to-do list, or the number of telephone calls you processed this hour. Celebrate when you’re ahead, but don’t be afraid to learn that you’re behind. When you have this kind of insight, you will be the first one to see problems coming. So, you can get to work fixing roadblocks — looking for more resources, perhaps, or finding the training you need — long before you ever miss a commitment to anyone else.

Better Working through Conversation

These three topics are the practical, positive, systemic aspects of your work: what you’re doing, why it matters, and how you know you are progressing. They reinforce the fact that you bring value to, and find value in, your workplace. They focus your creative energy on value, output, and mutual benefit.

Conversing about them encourages both you and your listener to think more clearly in these terms, and distracts you from less productive avenues of discussion. It’s difficult to complain about an uncaring manager when you’re defining the output you need to produce; it’s hard to grouse about impossible customers while recounting the broader good generated by your work.

To be sure, in having these conversations you’re likely to uncover some real issues:  the fact that you don’t exactly know your purpose, for example, or the fact that you’re not sure whether you’re making progress. They may seem frightening on the surface, but once defined, such questions can be investigated. And the answers you find will invariably lead to feelings of regained control rather than hopelessness. All you have to do is to start the process, to be the one to start the conversation.

Remember how I said I wasn’t going to tell you to set a better example for those around you? I lied.

More to Talk About

Looking for more topics of conversation? Purpose, impact and progress are only the beginning. Learn all six of the elements you need to manage an employee, influence a coworker, or reenergize yourself at work — in just three and a half minutes.