Mastering 3 Common Workplace Problems

Karthik Lakshminarayanan
5 min readDec 23, 2020

As we make progress in our careers, we run into certain common workplace situations that cause us frustration and anxiety. Left unchecked, this leads to increased unhappiness, poor engagement and eventually we ask ourselves if the job is worth it.

Let’s look at the three most common workplace problems that you are likely to encounter, and how to overcome them.

Photo by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash

1. “Should I go along to get along?”

Becca is a product manager on my team. She is great with customers, has a great work ethic and consistently performs well in her job. In a 1:1, she expressed reservations about working with her engineering partner, Ali. She added “I know this is a peer feedback driven organization. I like Ali as a person, but he is asking me to take notes every time, treating me as nothing more than a scribe. I don’t mind helping from time to time but this is becoming a pattern. Going against Ali would likely hurt how he writes about me during the performance review cycle”

Becca viewed this as a zero sum situation, and was approaching it from a mindset of fear. (“Her performance review would be impacted if she disagreed”).

Here is the path we charted for Becca. First we agreed that Becca had important viewpoints that warranted a team level discussion. Next, we identified other goals or objectives that Ali cares about. We uncovered that Ali cared about manager feedback and cultivating a people centric work culture. Tapping into this insight, we structured the following path forward for Becca.

  1. Becca would step back and instead of talking about the specific disagreement issues, she would talk to Ali about the culture he wanted to set up for the team.
  2. Set up a culture of inviting disagreement and respecting each other’s points of view. This breaks the fear cycle and instead moves to a spirit of discovery, tapping into the collective wisdom of the team.
  3. Look for opportunities to highlight the culture pioneered by Ali, with senior leads in the organization.

Having set up the structure, Becca can now raise questions in a safe space and gets recognized for personifying the team’s culture. The open dialogue helped her uncover additional considerations that Ali was able to highlight, which she had previously missed. More importantly, Becca no longer gets worked up about negative peer feedback, instead she has helped improve the culture for the entire working group.

2. “The Steamroller”

Another example that Becca needed help with went something like this.

Adam continues to steam roll his way and gets what he wants. He is more senior than me, so disagreeing with him, even when his ideas have flaws, is becoming difficult. I am frustrated that management seems to be doing nothing to stop Adam.

What Becca really needs is mastery over setting and managing boundaries with co-workers.

Why boundaries?

Boundaries are a naturally occurring fact in life. My father in law used to coach his kids to have boundaries using this amazing quote “Your freedom ends where my nose begins”. Our skin represents the boundary of our physical self. Fences mark the boundaries of a property. Without these metaphorical boundaries, you allow anyone or anything to breach your space and lose control of your life.

You set boundaries by defining what’s okay and what’s not okay.

Boundaries are about setting limits and being consistent in enforcing them, to regain control of things you value (e.g. your time). The person that cannot or will not set boundaries, feels controlled by others. Fear is a common reason why people hesitate to have strong boundaries, and this can be overcome by acting with empathy.

  • Emotions vs Actions. It is okay for the steamroller to be angry, frustrated and generally express their emotions. Other people’s emotions is not your problem. You should however set boundaries on their actions. For example, being angry is okay but yelling at you is not okay.
  • Be assertive, communicative and have a bias for action. Inaction — choosing to do nothing — is the worst form of action. Our approach should be to try and fail (and learn from it) vs failing to try. For example, if this person is imposing an unrealistic deadline, then just let them know you need more advance notice to meet deadlines and won’t be able to make it happen.
  • Authentic — set your boundaries based on your own expectations, is true to who you are and what you will and will not tolerate. Don’t design your boundaries based on other people’s boundaries.
  • Clarity. You should be 100% clear on what’s okay and what’s not okay. Be direct and specific in your communication.
  • Do unto others: Respect others boundaries, however different they might be from yours, just like you expect others to respect yours.
  • Are you worried about hurt feelings? Taking into account others feelings is important. You must always act with empathy. It is not a reason to stop doing what you need to do. Your clear decision making and boundary setting might upset someone. That is understandable. You are not accountable for how someone feels. Their feelings should not stop you from setting up boundaries for yourself.

When boundaries are violated, there has to be a clear signal that it is unacceptable (must be consequences) and reinforce your boundaries. There are no exceptions. Escalations, without making personal attacks, to that person’s manager or to your own manager are usually effective.

3. The “Poor Planner/everything is urgent” manager

We have all seen examples of this. You are a meticulous planner and have time allotted to hit your own deadlines. Surprise! Your manager pops in and asks you to get something done that is time consuming and is urgent. There goes the time you had planned to spend on your own work, your hobbies/friends or something else.

This is another example of boundary violation. It is not easy to say no to your boss but here is what you can do

  1. Highlight the impact of the most recent fire drill to your boss, and if possible highlight how other projects your manager cares about have now been affected.
  2. Don’t just complain, offer solutions. For example,
  • If your manager cares about building a bench, then highlight how this can be a great career opportunity for someone on the team that is potentially more junior and might be excited to work on such strategic projects directly with your manager. This creates a path forward to handle urgent problems without impacting your time in the same way.
  • Offer that when she assigns last minute work to you in the future, in the spirit of teamwork, your manager should chip in and work together on the deadlines. You have to get the manager to hate the urgent rush as much as you do.
  • If you can highlight this is a pattern with multiple occurrences, raise the topic of hiring additional people to help with the workload.

Using these techniques, you can regain control of your life from situations that were seemingly uncontrollable. Good luck!

If you liked reading this, consider signing up for career coaching. Schedule a complimentary consultation with me to discuss how I can help you accelerate your career.

Originally published at https://www.karthikln.com on December 23, 2020.

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Karthik Lakshminarayanan

Product Executive, focused on turning great products into great businesses. Current: Google. Previous: VMware, AppSense and Microsoft. All views are my own.