The other day, someone kept asking and I ran out of answers. "But, how?" were the words on repeat. I was in one of those large conference center rooms with 300 people sitting in neat parallel rows, and I was on the stage. It was 8am, and we were all discussing stress. A bearded man with crossed arms in the 2nd row wanted to know how to fix his terrible-sounding situation at work. His boss's demanding, demeaning, and unreasonable ways had made Mr. 2nd Row's life pretty miserable.
I believed him. Mr. 2nd Row did, in fact, look miserable. As a panelist, I offered my advice: Write down what behavior is bothering you with some specific examples. Reflect on how this impacts you and your work (trying to keep it about yourself and not everyone else.) Define your specific request for change. Arrange time to speak with the boss and ask if they're open to feedback. Share your observations plainly--without getting emotional, if possible. Start small--better not to dump a huge heap of issues on anyone all at once. Listen to their response. Thank them for their time. Monitor any changes when you're back at work.
If this doesn't work after a sincere couple of tries, then you can escalate by going to their boss.
Mr. 2nd Row wasn't satisfied. He pressed me for more. Then asked for more again. None of this would work for him, he said. The boss won't listen, and by taking these suggested steps, Mr. 2nd Row feared he'd just make the situation worse for himself.
It was clear he was in that really disheartening place that many of us have been. He was telling himself, "Nothing is going to change and I'm just going to be miserable forever--unless someone else steps in to fix this."
The moderator rightly suggested we move on to address questions from others in the room, as we weren't making any headway with this particular issue.
But I sat there still spinning on this man's problem.
What I really wanted to say was that I was both sympathetic and frustrated. I know that he kept asking for more answers because, in a sense, he was right: There aren't just 5 neat steps to fix a terrible situation at work. Within those 5, there are probably two dozen mini-steps. Some move you forward and some take you back, but they eventually lead where you want to go. That is, if, you believe in your own agency-- your ability to impact change within your environment.
If you don't actually believe that you can change your situation, then you have no motivation to try to make that change - you feel doomed from the start.
None of us can make someone else change. But we can control how others make us feel. We can hold up a mirror so they can see their impact--and possibly get inspired to change. We can pull people with more influence and elevate the situation after we've tried everything we can think of to get through to someone personally.
Yes, it can be scary to confront somebody--especially a boss--with criticism, but it's the only way they're going to find out that what they're doing isn't working for their employees. Remember that your other options are to simply cope with the situation or leave the job--I suspect neither of those sound too appealing. Instead of feeling helpless and at the mercy of your higher-ups, take the initiative to make change happen for yourself. The people around you will respect you for making the difficult choice, and it will be all the more satisfying when you see results from your own actions.