The Washington Post

@Work Advice: Offering unsolicited advice without offending higher-ups

(Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Reader: Aside from counseling, how do I learn to handle frustration in the workplace? I am, unfortunately, a very emotional person and show my frustration with situations where everyone knows things are not working, but no one wants to challenge the status quo. I cannot in good conscience just sit back and collect a paycheck. I want to learn how to offer suggestions without seeming to be criticizing those in positions of power. Are there any courses or books you can recommend?

Karla: It’s not clear whether you’re rejecting counseling or already pursuing it. Whatever the case, it can’t hurt to spend time with a professional or even an observant friend helping you comb your emotions out of the issues — especially if you’re generally prone to wanting to “fix” situations that aren’t your responsibility.

My untrained guess is that your frustration stems not just from the sheer volume of the problems, but also from the fact that you feel powerless to make yourself heard.

When you see an elephant in need of a makeover, you don’t march up and offer an unsolicited top-to-bottom critique of its eating, exercise and hygiene habits. You would end up ignored or squashed. Instead, you start by offering a pedicure. Build trust, and work your way up from there.

By the same token, when you want to propose fixes for large-scale issues at your workplace but aren’t in a position of power, start by focusing on solutions to problems within your reach. They could be as simple as streamlining file management procedures, or e-mailing meeting recaps to participants, or learning more about how your group’s work affects those downstream.

Several benefits to this toes-first approach:

You learn the system — and its flaws — from the inside, including the cause of the problems, contributing factors, and why they haven’t been fixed. Successfully challenging the status quo starts with knowing how it got to be that way.

When you solve local problems, you develop the self-assurance you will need to tackle global ones.

Even if you don’t end up moving on to global problems, solving the local ones makes your day-to-day work life, and that of your colleagues, easier.

By showing you’re a problem solver, not just a kibitzer, you increase your odds of being taken seriously by those in charge — and of
being invited to share your ideas.

I don’t know of any specific courses or books that could help. But it seems to me that participating in any group formed around offering supportive critiques in potentially emotional situations — community theater, writing workshops, public speaking clubs — could help you develop the voice, detachment and diplomacy you need to spark real changes at work.

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Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at
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