If you’re like many workers, at one time or another you’ve found yourself stuck in a job or career that you want to break out of but don’t know where to begin. So you keep swirling around in the soup of disillusion and frustration, asking, “Why did this happen?” or “Why did I get here?”or “Why me?”—questions that paradoxically can actually keep you stuck, according to Britt Frank, psychotherapist and author of The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia To Find Your Path Forward. I sat down with Frank, who identified the science behind three steps that can get us unstuck from a meaningless or stressful job or personal situation.
Bryan Robinson: Tell me what the science of stuck means.
Britt Frank: I use the word stuck to refer to situations where choice is readily available or the attention-action gap is a mile wide for no apparent reason. So when people say, “I’m stuck,” the first reason they often give is a mindset issue, motivation issue or personal issue. And that ignores the reality of our physiology. When you know how to drive the nervous system, stuck turns into unstuck very quickly.
Robinson: Can you give me an example of that?
Frank: Procrastination is one of my favorite things to talk about. People believe procrastination is a mindset issue. But your central nervous system has a gas pedal (the sympathetic system) and a brake pedal (the parasympathetic) and if both those pedals are stuck on off or on, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you try to think your way out of an empty tank of gas, you can think about the car being on empty or journal about it, but the solution to an empty gas tank is to get gas in the car. So let’s start with, “I’m stuck.” There’s a call I need to make or a meeting I need to schedule, and I’m frozen. Instead of lamenting, “Why am I feeling this way?” or “What’s wrong with me?” you can say, “Okay, my body is stuck in the off position.”
Robinson: Let’s take someone in a job they hate, and they don’t know how to get out. What is a practical way to apply the science?
Frank: When you’re stuck in a job, a relationship or leading a team and trying to manage all the personalities involved, you never want to start with why because insight does not lead to action. You can have all the insight in the world, but if you want to get from stuck to go, instead of starting with, “Why is this happening?” or “Why do I feel like this?” you must shift from asking why to naming three choices (or micro-yes’s) available right now and pick one.
Robinson: So can you break down the steps employees can take to get unstuck from a bad professional situation?
Frank: Step 1 is to assume there’s a reason you’re stuck without asking why. Step 2 is to ask what are your choices and pick three micro-yes’s available to you. Step 3 is, of those choices, pick one and do it. And then listen for the feedback and do that again and again.
Robinson: You’re saying that having clear steps helps workers focus on the solution instead of getting hijacked and carried away by the problem.
Frank: Exactly. If we’re talking about a person who wants to get moving, starting with why is not effective. You don’t ask why a building is on fire. You put out the fire. You ask why later. You go straight to your choice points, and if those are too big, you make them small enough that you can get to a yes. And once you get moving, it’s amazing how quickly moving compounds.
Robinson: What are some other examples of people getting stuck and ways out?
Frank: I think a lot of business leaders get stuck because they mistakenly come to believe that their job is to “therapize” their team. They get stuck in the epidemic of mental health and the thought that, “All my employees are struggling. Now I have a job to do, and somehow I have to balance demanding performance with a compassionate understanding that mental health is also important.” It’s important for leaders to know that you don’t have to be a therapist to your employees, and you don’t need to know why they’re stuck to get them unstuck. Business leaders can be brokers of resources, but they do not need to get caught up in the why and be therapists to their people.
Robinson: You know, this is a big issue in the modern workplace. Leaders are called upon to develop the skill of emotional intelligence to be effective managers. Managers say they’re being told they need to care more, show more empathy and compassion and be kinder. Of course, those soft skills are essential, but many leaders—especially men—often have a blank stare without a clue on how to apply those skills.
Frank: You don’t necessarily need to feel empathy or compassion to validate that someone is struggling. If you see an employee struggling, you can convey that you understand, give them the resources and explain the expectation. This trend of everyone being in their feelings is not only not useful, it’s contraindicated because it’s not helpful for people to be spinning around in their feelings. Validating feelings does not mean that you’re unpacking all of your personal things at work. I think that’s a big source of “stuckness” in the business world.
Robinson: How can employees get unstuck if they’re stuck in a toxic job?
Frank: That question goes back to the choice issue. Sometimes we have to make really hard choices. In order to maintain any sort of mental health wellness in your job, you need to set boundaries and take care of yourself. If you work for a manager who expects you to be online 15 hours a day, work weekends and forfeit your sick days, it will be difficult to set boundaries or practice self-care. This is who is in charge and that’s what they have laid out. That might mean in order to maintain your mental and physical health, you may need to leave. That’s a hard scenario to contend with.
Robinson: Sometimes in the heat of the moment our emotions throw our “thinking brain” offline, and we don’t realize we have choices. What do we do then?
Frank: A nervous system that’s overwhelmed will very quickly go myopic and not see that there are choice points. Stuck turns into unstuck the minute we take a step, but people are so concerned about making the right decision that it creates analysis- paralysis. A step in any direction will immediately create feedback. Your nervous system is like the GPS in your car. It only starts when you drive, and if you take a step in the wrong direction, it will re-route. Stuck turns into unstuck the minute you take a step in any direction.
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