Frustrated at Work? Pinpoint the Reasons

Are you a person who is easily frustrated at the office?  Do you know what’s behind it?

The locus of control

A key ingredient is the lack of control that a person perceives for the outcome of their work.  In psychology, this is called locus of control, a concept that was originally developed by Julian Rotter in the mid-twentieth century.  One has an internal locus of control if he believes that he controls his own destiny, and he has an external locus of control if he believes that his destiny is controlled by other forces like authority figures, fate, or God.  Over the last half century, psychological research has determined that males tend to be more internal than females, older people are more internal than younger people, and people at higher levels in the organization are more internal than junior-level staffers.

In general, having an internal locus of control is viewed as more desirable, since these individuals tend to be more achievement oriented. They are more persistent and work longer and harder to get what they need or want.  It’s better from a mental health perspective too, because when you feel that you can affect the outcome of your work, you are more satisfied and have a greater sense of accomplishment.

If you are a person who is prone to an external locus of control, this could be a major cause of your agita at work. Fortunately, there are things you can do to develop an internal locus of control. For example, you can:

Acknowledge your own choices

Just being alive means that you make thousands of small choices every day, and those small choices add up to make a major impact on your life. As for the bigger choices, usually you do have the power to take control of the ones that are really important.

Set achievable goals every day

Being able to check even minor things off a list each afternoon will improve your self-esteem and increase your internal locus of control.

Practice making decisions

Work on the skill of listing and evaluating the pros and cons of each option and coming to a conclusion on your own rather than relying on the opinions of others.

Change your thinking

If a thought such as “I’m helpless and there’s nothing I can do” finds its way into your head, quickly dispose of it by focusing on what you can do to better the situation.

Imagine how things could be worse

Some people also have low frustration tolerance, meaning that they are irritated by life’s minor inconveniences. For instance, if FedEx is late delivering your package, you might yell at the customer service rep or stare blankly at your computer while your anger simmers just below the surface. Since these types of situations crop up all the time, it’s in your best interest to rein in your negative reaction to them. The first step here is to imagine how things could be worse. As an example, FedEx could have lost your package instead of delivering it late, or you might lack the funds to buy the contents of the package in the first place or pay for their shipping.

Practice exposure

You may also want to try a little of what psychologists call “exposure.” This involves making a list of the everyday situations that annoy you (driving on the highway at rush hour, waiting on hold for a customer service representative, etc.) and subjecting yourself to them gradually so that you can increase your tolerance. As you’re experiencing these situations, you might ask yourself why you’re frustrated in the first place. Is it that you feel helpless or put out? If so, you might put processes in place to eliminate that negative feeling. For example, I get frustrated by sitting in meetings because they make me feel inefficient. I find that if I schedule these to last just thirty minutes (enough time for quick status updates and to-dos), I’m not nearly as anxious about my time being wasted.

Retool your perspective

My husband, who’s a psychologist, recommends an additional strategy to increase your ability to cope with frustration, and that is to put the frustrating situation in context. You can say, for instance, “Of all the upsetting things that have happened to me in my life, getting chastised by my boss in front of my client was a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, but not getting a seat on the subway this morning only gets a 2.”

Alexandra Levit is a Partner at PeopleResults and is passionate about helping people and organizations succeed in the evolving workplace. You can reach her at or on Twitter @alevit.