Spinning Wheels at Work?

Work Fear Anxiety

It’s a worker and supervisory nightmare. The work is there but, it doesn’t seem to be getting done. Supervisors are at their wit’s end and, the poor performing worker, thinks they’re doing their best.

Irritation, annoyance and frustration sets in. It’s maddening and demoralizing and all too common.

According to workplace psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Newman, there are reasons for why work might not get done, and there are ways to boost productivity after a slump.

There may be things going on when things aren’t getting done at work

You’ll hear supervisors complain about this. They provide direction to a worker and then worker doesn’t deliver the goods. Employees experience it too. They may know what needs to be done but find themselves spinning their wheels.

These situations lead to a lot of upset. Supervisors may resort to punitive measures, including poor performance evaluations, demotions or threats of suspension. Workers are also on edge, feeling threatened and sometimes misunderstood, thinking they’ve been trying to meet expectations but just can’t seem to show results. They may duck and cover, avoid the boss or, rack up absences.

Why do employees spin their wheels?

Avoiding reality is a way this happens at work. Managers will say–an employee ‘should’ be doing the tasks associated with their job, then the worker doesn’t do it. So, managers patiently explain their expectations but, nothing changes. The manager then becomes punitive or demanding, yet there’s still no change.

I once worked with a manager who was extremely angry with one of his subordinates. She was not delivering on a set of new priorities. He had talked to her repeatedly about what he expected, yet she kept focussing on tasks that weren’t her job. He said: “I told her she should be focussed on these tasks, but she keeps working on stuff other staff are supposed to do.”

His thoughts about what she should be doing fuelled his anger. Then he tried to force her to do what he wanted, including giving her poor evaluations and repeatedly calling her into his office to confront her.

What could someone in this situation do to change things?

“Should-thinking” patterns prevent managers and workers from really dealing with the situation. Instead they become punitive, hostile, demanding or hopeless. The first step to breaking the cycle is to step back and become curious.

Ask:  What makes someone who should be doing something, not do it?

The answer may be surprising. In one case, it was a lack of assertiveness skills. The worker was not getting to the things his boss thought were important because he couldn’t say no to demands placed on him from others. It left no time to do his work and he was close to losing his job. His boss had to help him learn to say: “No, I can’t do that right now, I’ll have to get back to you.” when he was working on something important.

What about workers who are in this position, any advice for them?

Unfortunately, workers use “should-thinking” patterns on themselves. I met with a worker who thought of herself as a procrastinator. She said she wasn’t getting her work done. She let it go and go, until she missed deadlines.

She told herself she shouldn’t procrastinate and would keep finding ways to stall. When asked to think about what was going on when she was stuck, she noticed she was talking to colleagues about their projects, instead of working on her own. So, she decided to talk to her manager about being assigned to more interesting projects. “Should-thinking” tends to delay finding solutions because it prevents workers from focussing on the real issue.

“Should-thinking” promotes wheel-spinning

When we use ‘should-thinking’, we are focussed on the future. Workers think: I should be doing this, but they’re not, so it’s helpful to focus on the present. Workers may notice they feel afraid, or they are defaulting to their comfort zone. Being curious about what is creating fear or what is so great about your comfort zone can lead to solutions.

I worked with a fearful employee who focussed on his current feelings, instead of engaging in “should-thinking”. Rather than think: “I should be getting this done” he noticed he felt nervous whenever he thought about the task, and it paralyzed him. He realized he was nervous.

He didn’t have some of the skills needed to do the job. Instead of telling himself he should do something he didn’t know how to do, he got some training.

Bosses can assist worker’s who are spinning their wheels

Notice if you are using this thought pattern, and stop yourself from developing punitive solutions as a result. Focus on what is happening for the worker.

A manager I worked with asked his employee to write down what was making a recurring task go slowly. The worker chronicled problems getting the information he needed from co-workers, out-dated software and manuals, a lack of support from managers in other areas. This way the manager stopped seeing the issues as excuses and tackled each difficulty one-by-one. The job got done and changes were made to make things go smoothly next time.

There’s been a lot in the news lately about bullying still being an issue in the RCMP and in banks.  Any advice for staff facing this in their workplaces?

The key to changing longstanding bullying and harassment is to continue to talk about it. Talk to anyone who will listen. Tell family, friends, co-workers or job-seekers. Look at the company policy on Respectful Workplaces to see if what is happening is related to the policy. Tell the company how it relates and be prepared to persevere. Also, develop an exit strategy if you or your family begin to suffer.

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