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How To Give Up Suffering The Workplace Blues

Posted on 26 August 2020

Be careful where you place your focus and attention. Whatever you focus on will grow more prominent and more present to your mind.


If, like many people, you focus mostly on what you haven’t got, what you haven’t done, and how your life doesn’t match your hopes and dreams, those negatives can easily come to dominate your thinking. Not only will this depress you, it will block your way towards all the things you do want to achieve.

Some people believe you ‘program’ your unconscious mind to concentrate on ways to bring you more of whatever you’re focusing on most. I’m very unsure about this as an actual mechanism, but it certainly reflects the way things can seem. More likely, amidst the mass of more or less random events that come along, your mind is trained to pick out the ones that match the areas where you habitually pay most attention. If you’ve developed a deficit-based outlook (what you don’t have or do), that’s what you’ll notice first. Then, to the extent that your words and actions produce consequences, these will be negative as well.

The power of deficit thinking

The next time someone urges you to focus on the gap between where you are and where you hope to be, ignore them. You know the gap is there. It’s far better to focus on whatever success you’ve had in bridging that gap. That builds self-confidence and encourages you to take the risks needed to improve further. Focusing on what’s missing will encourage you to play safe to avoid still worse happening.

Deficit thinking is an ingrained habit of focusing on gaps and weaknesses. It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a continual source of frustration and depression.

You would imagine this type of thinking would generally be discouraged, but you’d be wrong. It’s everywhere, because people suffer from the mistaken belief that paying attention all the time to the gaps between what you have and what you think you want will be motivating. It will propel you forward to fill the gap.

That may be true for some people, but for most the effect is the opposite. Faced with continually falling short of what’s supposed to be attainable, they give up — and then feel even worse for having done so.

Besides, many of the other ‘gaps’ are there because, deep down, what they represent isn’t you. You don’t want to be different or ‘better’ in that precise way; it’s other people who tell you that you ought to do it. They want you to change to suit their agendas, and you go along — at least on the surface — because it’s polite, or socially desirable, or you wish that you could agree with them (only you don’t). This gives you almost zero real motivation to change. As a result, you talk a great talk about whatever it is, yet never quite seem to be able to turn the talk into effective action. If you truly wanted to change — or give up whatever it is — you would find a way to do it, believe me.

Workplace blues

Nowhere is the malignant power of focusing on the negative all the time more apparent than in the workplace. What do performance appraisals dwell on most? Where people can ‘do better’. What is most training aimed at? Filling ‘gaps’ in peoples’ skills or knowledge. It isn’t that training people to give them more skills is a poor idea, it’s the negative way it’s usually presented. Performance appraisals tend to be almost entirely negative in tone: an exercise in regular criticism, not a chance to talk about successes and how to build on them.

Remember, whatever you focus on grows larger. Focusing on gaps, deficits and problems will make them even bigger and more menacing. If you, your boss and your company pay most attention to what’s not going well, its power to dominate your thinking and turn your life dark and gloomy will be increased. Hamburger Management tends to be especially bad in this respect, since whatever is achieved is immediately discounted and replaced by a target still higher and harder. No time to celebrate. Get going on doing better. It’s enough to make anyone feel inadequate.

People who suffer from ingrained deficit thinking (and that’s just about all of us, since it’s drummed into us from school onwards) spend their whole time checking up on their failings, limitations, weaknesses, and the gaps in their knowledge. Then, armed with a mental list of all the things that are wrong with them, they start trying to put them right, usually by applying willpower. It rarely, if ever, works. Why? Because many of the “problems” are part of their basic make-up, so that’s like deciding to will yourself to be six inches taller, or to have blue eyes instead of brown ones. Go at it all you like. Nothing will change.

How to cure yourself

Here’s how to get rid of negativity and deficit thinking:

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. Sure, you have some. Everyone does. Try using that energy to celebrate and build on what you do well. It’ll give you a far better payback.
  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Be grateful and enjoy what you have and who you are, instead of ignoring both in favor of worrying about what you don’t have and aren’t likely to become, however much you obsess about it.
  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong. Most of the gaps you’ve been encouraged to fret about don’t exist outside the minds of those others who want you to change to fit in with their ideas. The “gaps” are only in your mind because you allowed someone else to put them there.
  • Don’t accept judgments by others without looking at whatever they tell you very, very closely. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people accept judgments and assessments from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? Judgments like that are even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth. When someone passes judgment, or tries to put some guilt feeling onto you, tell them to go poison someone else’s mind.
  • Stop focusing on life’s negatives. The world is uncertain and difficult enough without you adding to the pile of problems you have to deal with.
  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy and successful. There’s no such right. The best way to be happy is to give up being miserable. The best way to be successful is to be who you are and do what fits with that. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Smile and enjoy it.
  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you — not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying. Best of all, treat them like the weather: sometimes an inconvenience, sometimes a pain, and sometimes full of joyous sunshine. Many of them are probably due more to what you ate or drank yesterday than anything meaningful.

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some belief about what is ‘normal’ or ’standard.’ Normality is nothing more than a statistical concept. It’s not real. Get a hundred people in a room and the chances are you won’t find a single ‘normal’ one there, taken against almost any measure. And who wants to be ’standard’? I don’t know about you, but I would far rather be special and unique. Give up the deficit thinking. Stop focusing on the negative. Enjoy what you have, instead of always hoping for more. I guarantee you’ll be happier and probably more effective as well.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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15 Comments For This Post

  1. Scott says:

    Excellent article. I am guilty of not being able to get outside of my own head sometimes. I notice that the days that I feel best are the ones where I am focused on all the things that are great about my family and accomplishments in my career.

    My favorite point is the one titled “Stop watching your emotions.” “Many of them are probably due more to what you ate or drank yesterday than anything meaningful,” made me chuckle. An interesting point of view that I hadn’t considered.

    A question: how do you reconcile this point of view with the trend that good leaders need to have well developed self-awareness? How can you be self-aware without watching your emotions?

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Scott: Thanks for the comment, Scott. I’m glad you liked the article.

    Your question about watching your emotions is a good one. I think the answer is that leaders need to be aware of how they feel and react, but avoid dwelling on either or giving their emotions too great a prominence. You can be self-aware — which includes taking emotions (yours and everyone else’s) into account — without wallowing in your feelings all the time.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  3. Wally Bock says:

    Excellent post. It reminds me of the Cherokee story about he two wolves that live within you. One is good and the other is bad. “Which one wins,” a young man asks his father. “The one you feed.” is the reply.

  4. Sambit Misra says:

    Makes excellent reading and great idea for maintaining peace of mind in a world where everybody tries to short sale your ability by focusing on your inability rather than your ability while you are hired in the first place for your ability and not your deficiencies. However one has to analyze oneself to know the areas which needs improvement so that he can leverage his ability by developing those areas. Does it make sense to bury one’s head and be happy when he can look around and learn to grow making him more happy ?

  5. peter vajda says:

    Hi, Scott,

    Good question, “A question: how do you reconcile this point of view with the trend that good leaders need to have well developed self-awareness? How can you be self-aware without watching your emotions?’

    The deal with emotions, for me, is that emotions are windows into ourselves to see what we need to see about ourselves, where we need to do some “work” in terms of becoming more emotionally mature. I’ve often said that most folks are 3-4-5-6 year-olds in adult bodies wearing adult clothing. Becoming witnesses, watchers and observers of ourselves can give us great insight into who we are and how we are in terms of thoughts, behaviors and attitudes that play out in our relationships - thoughts, behaviors and attitudes that either support our maturity or limit it.

    Lastly, there’s a difference between “having” and emotion and “being” that emotion. Maturity is the former; immaturity is the latter. Leaders and all folks for that matter would do well to understand this difference. Self-awareness is a step in that understanding.

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Wally Bock: Thanks, Wally. I’m glad you liked it. Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Sambit Misra: I agree, Sambit, that learning and extending yourself can be a great way to enjoy life. But you don’t need to focus on deficiencies to do that. The best learning strategy is to work on making what you already do well even better — so you move from merely good to definitely great. Keep reading, my friend.

  8. Martin Wildam says:

    I enjoyed reading your article except one thing I do not fully agree:

    > Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies.

    It is very important to be aware of gaps - not only the fact that there are some - when you do something you need to know where your limits are and what you do not know. I think you meant that one should not get lost by searching for the gaps and filling all those gaps. I would rather correct this to something like

    “Stop analysis where it is not economic any more.”

  9. CK says:

    “Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful.” That is hard to do when they keep draining the glass! Am I to keep happy when I try to advance myself through education, certifications and degrees while I see others bypass me because they are a part of “the clique” with little or no experience? I work hard and I also worked hard to gain knowledge. A few have told me that I have now become a treat to the managers and the established ’system’ (clique) because of my education and knowledge. They appear to like employees that are dumb and clueless because they are easier to manipulate!

  10. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Martin Wildam: Thanks for your comment, Martin. I agree that you need to know what you don’t know and to be aware when you have some gap in ability. What I meant was that you shouldn’t focus on the gaps all the time.

    Sometimes a gap isn’t of any great importance. Sometimes you simply have to live with it or find a way around it, since trying to fill it will take far more time and energy than it is worth. If that’s what you mean by “Stop analysis when it is not economic any more,” I’m with you 100%.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  11. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: What I meant was that you should be objective. If it’s simply half a glassful, assuming it’s a half-empty glass adds a ‘problem’ (how to fill it) that wasn’t there before.

    If you find that the place where you work values conformity more than ability, you have three choices: stay and conform, stay and be unhappy as you are,or leave. The objectivity comes in when you take a long, hard look to make sure that what you perceive is the truth (the organization wants yes-men) and not a result of some misperception (Those who get ahead have some other ability you are missing, like being highly sociable or being better at playing organizational politics.).

    Whether you go or stay, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, or you won’t be able to learn anything useful from the experience.

    Thanks for your comment, CK. Keep reading, my friend.

  12. CK says:

    @Coyote - It’s not that the glass is half full/empty. The point is that my employer is DRAINING the glass just as fast or faster than I can fill it midway. I had talked to one lawyer for advice regarding my employer. Thus far I could have a case against them for sexual harrassment, retaliation, and age discrimination. That also doesn’t include placing my health and possible life at risk.

    As to politics … that is what they do becuase they are no good at doing anything else! I had one manager (different division) state that he couldn’t do his job because of the politics my division was playing (my division was wanting to take over the manager’s function).

    Yet I hear from customers how incompetent the managers and personnel are in their functions (of course there are a few exceptions :-> ). It appears that if you are good at your job they find a way to fire you or make you quit. That is where I’m at now. Regarding the division that they finally overtook - all sourts of promises were made. The result is what use to take 10 minutes now takes two weeks to accomplish! And they call that progress!

    And then there is the use of illegal pirated software that they use …

    And yes, I am actively looking as is 1/3 to 1/2 the people I work with! As one leaves we all cheer them on “Another one escapes!!! YEA!!!!”

  13. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: Hey, you have my sympathy, CK. I never meant to suggest otherwise. It sounds as if you work for a Hamburger Management organization par excellence — and one whose upper echelons are populated by assholes.

    Best of luck getting out!

  14. Sambit Misra says:

    Hello there.You can call me sambit without wasting space. I think Martin Wildam had the same point. Normally awareness of a deficiency has more force in it to propel us towards rectification than the power of fulfillment to move us to better ourselves. But I agree that it must also take the person into account. It is better to strech but no point in streching to crumble.

  15. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Sambit Misra: Thanks for your comment, Sambit.

    I’m not convinced feeling a ‘deficiency’ actually has more motivating power than looking to fulfill your potential. I think we’ve simply been born into a world where that is the prevailing assumption.

    As a direct result, most people — especially authority figures like bosses, parents and teachers — unthinkingly focus on criticizing and pointing out what’s wrong, instead of offering praise for what’s right or encouraging others to become all they can be.

    Keep reading, my friend.

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