I still have a vivid memory – from over twenty years ago – of my boss who was a bully and a workaholic. He regularly called me at all hours – midnight and on weekends. I started to become extremely anxious, losing sleep and my appetite. I was in counseling and my therapist said, “Only stay at the job as long as your self-esteem is not negatively impacted. Once you start to doubt yourself, you need to leave.”

I have never forgotten that advice. Luckily, I got a new job within a few months, but this was back when I was young (and cheap!). This is not the case for many people. Most of my clients have invested many years sometimes a decade or longer, which makes jumping ship seem scary and difficult. When – and how – do you decide that enough is enough? 

A third of my clients have uninspiring work situations which can involve toxic bosses or unmotivated teams. They react like I did back then – feeling anxious and resigned/resentful, losing sleep, and starting to doubt themselves. Some of my clients look for other jobs and others work with me to coach them on resilience, confidence at handling difficult conversations, and on how to get their MOJO back. But I think they are all looking for is some peace and a good night’s sleep.

How to move towards peace?

Why is peace so important? According to researchers, when you’re experiencing a negative emotion such as “I want to kill my boss” or “I want to light a fire under my team’s chairs,” the possible solutions that are available to you tend to be much more limited than if you have positive emotions. And, while visualizing your entire team jumping out of their hot chairs might put a smile on your face, it will probably keep you fixated on the fact that you have tried to motivate them and failed, so you become resigned and/or resentful. This negative cycle is something my clients (and I) have been caught in. I learned a surprising lesson while skiing that has helped me and my clients break this cycle.

Go on a Sensation Hunt

It was a snowy day in the Catskills – which these days is a rarity. I started to panic as I am used to skiing groomed snow or East Coast ice, not fresh powder. Luckily, I was attending the Fear Clinic run by Mermer Blakslee, an expert on fear and the author of one of my favorite books, A Conversation With Fear.

Mermer encouraged us to play with “sensation hunts.” Instead of thinking, “I want to ski on groomed trails,”try to feel the snow under your skies. Notice how the textures: the softness, the bumps, and the fluffiness of the flakes. Surrender to the moment and let go of control.

As a perfectionist, letting go is scary. But I soon realized that panicking was not helping me ski better. I stopped, took a breath and felt compassion for myself as I acknowledged my fear and lack of comfort.

I slowed down, took my time, looked around at the white blanket all around me, and attempted to listen and feel the snow. I start acting like a ten-year-old child sticking out my tongue and catching snowflakes. My skiing isn’t pretty, but I realize that I have more ability than I give myself credit for. I can ski in these conditions if I stay in the moment and keep looking for the beauty around me.

My playful sensation hunt calmed me down and lightened me up. I found my ski legs and enjoyed the moment. After returning to work, I thought I wonder if my clients could try this at work? 

Go on an Inspiration Hunt

My client, “Stevie,” was struggling to inspire her large team full of Millennials. She’s a 53-year-old, senior level Managing Director at a small global financial services firm that focuses on managing pensions. She felt burned out and wanted her MOJO back. After years in the rough and tumble investment banking and consulting industries, she chose this smaller firm because it was friendlier and moved at a slightly slower pace. She wanted to enjoy time with her family rather than working 80+ hours a week, but still wanted to achieve big things. She felt that she and her team were not on the same page.

When I asked her about the situation, Stevie said she assumed that her hard work should inspire her team, but that wasn’t working. When I asked her what inspired her, she realized she didn’t know. 

I asked Stevie to go on an inspiration hunt. I asked her to reflect on these questions:

  • What inspires you?
  • What enlivens you?

I encouraged her to think about small things, like a random act of kindness, a delicious meal, or taking a walk in the woods. What Stevie realized was that she is stimulated by aiming big, excellence. She was a former college athlete who enjoyed striving to improve. She understood that she had become resigned and was not only aiming for mediocrity. This was an “a-ha moment” similar to my experience on the snow. She was getting annoyed at herself and her team on a regular basis. She needed to refocus herself.

I noticed that Stevie talked fast and rarely smiled. We did a brief deep breathing exercise. I asked her to sit up in her chair, get comfortable, close her eyes, take five slow deep breaths, and just see how this felt. This helped Stevie slow down and center herself. She started practicing deep breathing on a regular basis. This is no small step for a perfectionist, to let go of control and allow yourself to be present. This led Stevie to realize that she needed more exercise. She started walking to and from meetings in another office which made her to feel energized.

Then I asked Stevie if we could start with something small that might inspire her at work.

One of her pet peeves was that her staff would dress casually when they were pitching new business. As a small firm competing against the big banks who always seemed to come across more professionally, she felt dress was important. Stevie wanted every possible advantage. She decided to call a meeting before a crucial sales pitch and explain to her team why wearing a suit and was important. Much to Stevie’s surprise, her message was fairly well received. While people might not have been jumping up and down, they came to the next sales meeting with suits and some even wore ties. This was the beginning of Stevie moving towards a more positive mindset and a good night’s sleep.

But what if you are not in charge and are caught working for a bad boss and you have a lot vested in the company?

Finding Peace with a toxic boss

One of my clients, “Sally,” is a managing director in a large global organization where she has worked for a decade. She went for a promotion but didn’t get it, and someone from outside was hired to lead the group. Her new boss was not very friendly or forthcoming. The boss started “borrowing” one of Sally’s’ staff without asking, and Sally was already under-resourced.

Sally started overworking, losing sleep, and becoming extremely anxious. The project she had started from scratch – and successfully grown – would be wrapping up at the end of the year. As we were exploring her options, she started asking, “What do I want from this place?”

As we dug deeper, she realized that she was fearful that she would not find another job, and that she needed to stay at this company to validate herself. She had become resigned and a little resentful. I challenged her view – she was barely 40 years old and extremely marketable. The first step towards getting some sleep was acting to challenge her self-perception. This would require her to organize a small and strategic networking plan. I asked her to list a few key people she trusted (both inside and outside of the organization) and could reach out to for mentoring and guidance. As she identified people, she realized her network was small but robust. To prepare her for mentoring meetings, I asked her to list her key accomplishments and what made her most proud. Both of these small steps helped her breathe easier and build her confidence and self- worth.

Deciding when is enough enough

In toxic situations, making peace with yourself rarely comes easily. While there is no one answer, I always return to my experience with my old boss – are you losing your self-esteem? Is it impacting your life/health in a detrimental manner? Check in with a friend or significant other. That can be a valuable first step.

Peace comes from the hard work: figuring out what you most value and need, then making choices to move you closer to realizing them. Sometimes you may not like the answers or may not be able to leave the job for some time. That is when I think of the sensation hunt in the snow. What small steps can you take that can enliven you, relax you, and help you feel more positive? 


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