How can I put on a pleasant face at work?
March 20, 2018 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I'm developing a reputation for crabbiness at work. I'd like to change that. Thing is, I'm genuinely pretty crabby because I feel like I'm not being supported or used efficiently. Given that there's nothing I can do about that, how can I at least stop letting it show?

So I work in the field, whereas most of the people I interact with work in an office. I do a lot of driving around and visiting sites, everyone else either does a lot of designing and managing, or sales work which is a mixture of field and office stuff. My job is mostly physical construction-type work mixed with a fair amount of paperwork and email, theirs are mostly office-type work and/or travelling salesman type stuff. My job is a front-line, low-on-the-hierarchy position. Their jobs are all over the org chart.

The thing is, over time I've come to feel like the folks back in the office have really been putting the squeeze on me. Policies get changed in ways that add more work to my plate for reasons that I don't particularly agree with, but I'm not part of any decision making so there's not much I can do about that. People also frequently fail to hold up their end of things, such that I'm often not given the information I need to do my job, or appointments get cancelled and nobody tells me (so I show up at a customer's door, often having driven through hours of rush-hour traffic, only to learn when I get there that there's no job) that kind of thing. There's not much I can do about that either. I've been in this position for a year now and it's gotten worse over time. People aren't held accountable, promises to implement changes I've asked for aren't kept. It's frustrating and I feel grumpy about it.

Now obviously, I have the option of looking for another job and maybe I'll do that at some point. Meanwhile though, it helps nobody when I let my grumpiness show through. When I push back on things I never get my way, but I do get a reputation for being irritable. It doesn't help that I don't see what's going on back at the office, and it doesn't help that everyone in the office sees each other in person every day (it's a smallish company) while all they see of me are emails and phone calls, plus the work that I turn in. I don't see the decisions being made or any of the bigger picture, just the way that those decisions end up impacting me.

I'm trying to make an effort to be more pleasant, since I know being a grouch is doing me no favors. However I have a really hard time sustaining that in a consistent way because it seems like hardly a day passes without some new indignity, and I really do find it pretty stressful. My immediate supervisor is generally supportive and says that he has my back, but I don't see any results from that—my feeling is that his supervisor overrides him, and also that he really has to pick his battles to begin with. Also, of course, as a middle manager he represents his own higher ups at least as much as he represents me. So I can come to him to an extent, but if all I'm doing is complaining about things that he can't or won't help me with, that's no good.

For now I'm committed to this job. Maybe I could do better elsewhere, but it's definitely not a sure thing and anyway I'm looking at moving in the next year or two and I'd rather that a new job search coincide with that. I do have a kind of low-level background search going on just so that I can have a general idea of what my options are, and maybe I should step that up a little, but for the short term I want to make the best of this and just try to change the way that I present myself so that everyone (including my supervisors) don't just think of me as that pissed-off guy who's always complaining. I know my actual performance is good—I've heard that from my supervisors and also I've seen the work that other people in my position turn in and mine is just flat-out better—but I want to improve my reputation.

How do I do that? How do I project sunshine and happiness when inside I'm frustrated and irritable? What are some strategies for consistently making sure that I don't let my true emotions show through in my communications? This is not something I've had to grapple with before in a workplace setting; in the past I've always been one of the cheerful ones, someone who gets along well and is philosophical about setbacks. Or, if I projected any kind of displeasure it was in a spirit of commiseration with my coworkers. I've never felt like it was me-against-everyone-else before. I don't like it, I know it's not a good look, and I want to change. But how? I need concrete advice, tips and tricks for maintaining a pleasant demeanor in the moment even when I feel like I'm being hung out to dry.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Work & Money (23 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I had a much easier time keeping my cool in a frustrating job once I properly medicated my depression and anxiety. Those issues made me much more tense and ready to snap when something went wrong.
posted by bluloo at 5:04 PM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you've got to find sources of enjoyment outside of work. Hobbies, a new TV show or video game, a musical instrument? If you keep driving through hours of traffic, you could find a podcast you get really excited about. In the lowest of the low times of my life, being in a fandom for a TV show, game, or band really got me through it, because I could spend my whole day being gleeful and happy about my fandom instead of thinking about why everything else around me was a garbage pile.
posted by capricorn at 5:29 PM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't know if I come across as crabby, but I do worry sometimes I come off as negative because I have no qualms about pointing out how stupid a decision is or offering criticism of something. Not just at work -- in general. I've tried to just not say anything negative to anyone who I am not certain agrees with me, which is easier said than done. But I particularly think this is a problem when interacting with new people when I may not know how they feel about certain things. Now I always say try to say something positive unless the other person says something negative first. I may be thinking "This is the dumbest idea ever" but I'll say, "Oh, that sounds good." I might be thinking, "That guy is the most disorganized manager ever" but I'll say, "Yeah, he's been helpful." If someone wants to complain to me, I'll happily join in, but I realize I've been negative when other people have shared my feelings and that can be off-putting. Know your audience.

Another thing is, as dumb as it sounds, you could bring in donuts for everyone some day, or bake some cookies for the office. Say you did it because you thought it might be nice and you just wanted to brighten up everyone's day. Maybe not in all offices, but in some, that will be viewed as a nice gesture and a team-oriented gesture. My mom does stuff like this at her job all the time and she started the "sunshine club" to make sure everyone's birthday was acknowledged and to organize office activities around holidays or events like the Super Bowl to keep morale up. People love her.

But I'll add: sometimes, your job sucks and you aren't happy with it. That's fine too. Sometimes your best solution is really to just put up with it and then get a new job. I had a job that sounded a lot like yours -- it felt like a disorganized shitshow, procedures didn't exist or were made up on the fly, and when I pushed for actual improvements it went nowhere and I felt like I was just a complainer or an agitator. I found a lot of my conversations with co-workers ended up being about how much our company sucked, and I doubt that made anyone enjoy my company. The biggest freedom I offered myself was to stop giving a shit. The organization was a mess and I knew it, and I stopped trying to worry about whether everything was going right or that I was asked to do shit that really wasn't part of my job. The organization eventually folded and there was nothing I could've done to stop it. For the last year-ish, I only worked hard enough to keep everyone from noticing me and I put in just above the bare minimum. I under-promised (gave myself more time than I needed always, and didn't think twice about telling someone I couldn't turn something around sooner) and over-delivered whilst keeping my workload very comfortable. It was great and maybe that's the solution for you here: care less about the bullshit. You don't seem to like this job anyway and you're powerless to fix it, so maybe you can stop putting so much worry into it and just ride it out until you can move on?
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:43 PM on March 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

I’m sorry you’re dealing with this difficult and clearly unfair situation. Maybe you can be extra friendly toward the people who are helpful to you, and that will make you feel like less of a crab? It has the additional benefit of making it evident to the PITA folks that you aren’t an unpleasant person at all, and if they don’t get your friendly face, it’s because they are not meeting you halfway. Or maybe jerks aren’t that introspective. But it might help you feel better!
posted by Knowyournuts at 5:54 PM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you're low on the hierarchy then whether the job gets done or not isn't really your concern or responsibility so I would suggest just trying to roll with things. If they give you more paperwork to do then fine you have more paperwork to do. That just means you'll have less time for the field work and the office will have to schedule things accordingly. If you drive to a site only to find out that the appointment was cancelled then you've just been paid to drive somewhere and back, which is a good opportunity to listen to some music, podcast or audiobook on the company dime.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:55 PM on March 20, 2018 [17 favorites]

.he biggest freedom I offered myself was to stop giving a shit. The organization was a mess and I knew it, and I stopped trying to worry about whether everything was going right or that I was asked to do shit that really wasn't part of my job. The organization eventually folded and there was nothing I could've done to stop it. For the last year-ish, I only worked hard enough to keep everyone from noticing me and I put in just above the bare minimum.

THIS, and also what any portamanteau in a storm said.

You have no control over anything you don't like. Radical acceptance and letting go of caring is the only answer. If something at work is fucked up and means you have to do more work, then that's clearly what your office wants to have happening and they will just have to deal with that. If you wasted work time driving for two hours in rush hour traffic for nothing, that's what they wanted to do and you still got paid at least.

Now I've gotten crap for being fake and smiling, but sometimes you just have to do it at work, whether or not you can fake being "genuine" about it. Mostly what I do is the aforementioned "there is nothing I can do about anything I don't like and that is just how it is," combined with keeping my mouth shut. I don't talk all day long unless I have to or if I'm around someone I trust. Now people can't go complaining about how "negative" I am. In person, speak as little as possible. On email, take a few minutes to think and delete out things you wrote so that it's down to the bare minimum that you absolutely have to say before you say it. I don't know what to tell you on phone calls because I find them the hardest to uh, hold back and be perfect at when stressed myself. Maybe try not to talk on the phone if you can avoid it.

Oh yeah, and someone recommended this to me yesterday.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:08 PM on March 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, I forgot to write this above but it feels relevant in terms of the level of frustration I am up against. This is a salaried position, so I'm paid the same regardless of how many hours I work. At the job interview, it was pitched as averaging about 8 hours of work a day, less in the winter and more in the summer, with some random variation and (small) bonuses on the heavy days. It's actually been more like ten hours a day winter and twelve summer, often spills onto the weekend, and my schedule has zero predictability; I don't really know what my schedule for the day is until the night before, and sometimes it even changes on the day of. Meanwhile, the bonuses for my position have been slightly cut. So I'd be kind of stressed even if everyone around me were perfectly supportive and reliable.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:10 PM on March 20, 2018

Here are some tips to seem more positive/likeable:
- ask people about themselves instead of complaining. Example: you’ve just gotten bad news from a coworker. You say, “ok. How are things back at the office?” Or “how’s your workday going?” Or “what’s the latest on X project?” People like to talk about themselves. Steer clear of personal questions.
- think about being pleasant as the unspoken but most important part of your job description. It might even help to write it out for yourself in a job description like way: “widget-maker will strive to be kind, courteous, and positive with clients and coworkers.”
- keep it professional but take time to notice positive or neutral things about your coworkers and/or work environment. Things like: Janet takes her coffee black or the plants get watered on Tuesday. The goal with this one is to focus on positive or neutral things about your environment and to develop curiosity which I believe is at the heart of pleasantness/kindness. I bet there are other “curiosity” games you could develop
posted by CMcG at 6:18 PM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

On reading your update I just want to add that I think you are absolutely justified in being frustrated.
posted by CMcG at 6:21 PM on March 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

Focus your attentions elsewhere (both personally fulfilling hobbies and activities, as well monitoring any job feelers), say little at work, and bring a box of doughnuts/muffins/danish to the office every 10 days or so.

Seriously, office culture is ridiculous. Any residual (thorough relatable!) grumpiness will be written off as quirkiness if you're the one guy bringing ___, unprompted.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:25 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I work in the field, not the office. I work solo all day. I am a type of field technician and do not visit the office in a normal week at all. My job is also rather dangerous, although to be honest I really do enjoy the actual work.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:34 PM on March 20, 2018

Come back with donuts.
posted by zadcat at 7:01 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I stand by what I said, especially the last paragraph, but based on your update, maybe you start setting some boundaries. "No, I can't possibly fit that in my schedule - I'm slammed. We'll have to do it next week instead." "I have plans this Sunday with my family. You'll have to find someone else to do this or we can reschedule." If they keep piling onto your schedule and hours, and you keep delivering, they are going to keep doing it. Push back on it. If they want to hire another person because they can't just run you into the ground, they can. Sounds to me like the grumpiness and complaining is more a symptom of the fact you're being taking advantage of and aren't actually standing up for yourself? Complaining feels like standing up for yourself, but you actually aren't.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:24 PM on March 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

I agree with setting boundaries so you have less resentment to cover up. Besides pushing back on scheduling, would doing a job only as well as your coworkers do it save you time / is it adequate? Can you call the office to confirm appointments/ information before you start driving there? Calling in also humanizes you and makes a little more space for pleasant chit chat. Report not being informed that appointments were cancelled or that you didn't get needed info to your boss, as that's a bare minimum they should be doing and is something they can probably change (better form? new procedures?) if you tell them consistently.

For improving work relationships otherwise, try taking the occasional goofy selfie / photo and add it to an email you're sending anyhow. Do you see dogs while out and about? Send coworkers pictures of them. Keep it up if someone responds favorably. Your mileage will vary depending on your coworkers, but selfies are extra good because they get the reminder that you are a person and not just an email address.

I sympathize, a friend of mine has a very similar work situation.
posted by momus_window at 8:00 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know my actual performance is good—I've heard that from my supervisors and also I've seen the work that other people in my position turn in and mine is just flat-out better—but I want to improve my reputation.

all they see of me are emails and phone calls

If that's the case, then all you're seeing of them is emails and phone calls as well, and you don't actually have enough information to be able to judge what shape your in-house reputation is in.

for the short term I want to make the best of this and just try to change the way that I present myself so that everyone (including my supervisors) don't just think of me as that pissed-off guy who's always complaining.

If the complaining you've already done has caused no detectable improvement, it's likely that no amount of further complaining will do so either. So you have the option of just giving up on complaining and fully accepting that your employer doesn't actually give a shit about you.

Which sounds like capitulation, but really isn't. Because the consequence is that you can stop giving a shit about them as well, which means that your in-house reputation stops mattering, leaving your way clear to put all your giving-a-shit efforts into the quality of your work.

I've seen the work that other people in my position turn in and mine is just flat-out better

Jobs come and jobs go, but you carry your skills with you. You will walk away from this shitty employer at some stage. You have no realistic cause to expect that they will give any more of a shit about your reference than they have already given about about your working conditions. So stop trying to impress them, and get back to doing what you do best i.e. work whose quality pleases you.
posted by flabdablet at 10:16 PM on March 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

Something else that occurred to me as I was out for a walk: if most of your work product consists of reports, perhaps you could batch up all your completely legitimate complaints in the form of a report of your own, with similar styling to the company's existing report forms, titled "Issues impacting company profitability" and submitted monthly as if it were a regular part of your job.

If you have enough access to the company's servers to upload its template next to all the others you use, so much the better.
posted by flabdablet at 4:10 AM on March 21, 2018

I third going on a donut offensive. People are dumb, bring them donuts and they will like you.

I also n-th just finding a way to roll with the incompetence and enjoy the freedom of not being in an office. Try that as much as you can. And while you are clearly being given too much work for a day, try to find breathing space in your day. Slow it down. If you show up and a meeting has been cancelled just take a deep breath and smile at the person who is delivering this news and ask them about their day. Really listen. Then stand outside, stretch, call a friend or family member for 5 minutes. Send a silly selfie of you standing outside destination with a bemused expression and say, “Meeting was cancelled - how can we sort this out?”

Basically, you need to find ways to exert control over a situation which feels out of control. And also remember that other people have their own things going on. They aren’t out to get you, they are all locked in their heads with their own stresses. You are out of sight, out of mind. Start developing your own processes to check your schedule such as calling ahead to confirm an appointment an hour out. If it’s cancelled, go get a coffee before getting another task or if it’s late in the day and you’ve already done two 10s, see if you can head home.

Start having something at home that you have to get home for. A dog that needs to go out. Or a neighbor that needs assistance or a family member that needs you. It doesn’t have to be real.

Lastly, put your energy into documenting the skills you have and learning the skills you want for the next job. If you’ve run out of growth in your position, focus then on this people stuff and start putting less of yourself in reports. I see you moving on from this company, be ruthless about pursuing your career interests so that you can move on with confidence when the opportunity arises.
posted by amanda at 6:22 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Again, I work in the field. Alone. If I am buying donuts, I'll be eating them alone in my work van.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:49 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: if all that people are seeing from you is written communications, make your written communications nicer. Open and close with stuff like "I'm so proud to be on this amazing team" and "best team ever!" and "shout out to Bob, Mindy and Fred for their inspiring work on the TPS report. Love you guys!" &c. Puke silently to yourself where nobody will hear it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:31 AM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The extreme difficulty here is due to not being with your co-workers in person.

I do a LOT of emailing for work, and it's easy for me to let frustrations show through the the person on the other end. I've found that re-reading my email, removing ANY extraneous explanatory information (which is often actually an explanation of how THEY screwed something up, not me), and then adding an exclamation point (only one, probably following a "thanks so much") somewhere makes me seem less punchy. Or, if you you think it works for the particular recipient, adding a link to a funny gif, etc. can be an icebreaker.

On the phone, I generally just try to say less and ask more questions.

This is a tough one though...I feel your pain.
posted by nosila at 9:15 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing simplifying emails and adding at least one exclamation point. If someone does something right or helpful for you, thank them in an email and praise them (where appropriate) in emails to other people.

You might also look at this kind of art project, kind of serious thing: emotional labor email plugin. I'm not saying that you should use this plugin, but that playing with it might give you some ideas of how make your emails sound cheerier.

On the phone, people can hear if you're smiling. (Really!) So plaster on a smile sometimes when you're talking to them.

Your job sounds kind of lonely. If you ever do a get a chance to go in to the office, bring donuts I guess.
posted by purple_bird at 4:18 PM on March 21, 2018

Open and close with stuff like "I'm so proud to be on this amazing team" and "best team ever!" and "shout out to Bob, Mindy and Fred for their inspiring work on the TPS report. Love you guys!"

Tread carefully with this approach, which could easily come across as insincere, and easily easily easily come across as sarcasm.
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 PM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question a few weeks ago in case you want to review some other responses. I'm still grumpy and realize I need to make a change - find a new job - but these are some things that help me since asking the question:
- Working out. Crazily it helps me let go of things that usually annoy me.
- Really trying hard to plan and prepare for my day including planning for the unplanned. I sit down each morning and scribble down meetings, what I need to do to get ready for them, random stuff I really need to get through...I know this may be difficult in your work, but to the extent you can you could try to plan so that you're not a victim of the days activities
- When surrounded by what I perceive to be ineptitude, ignoring it and focusing on doing a good job for ME, something I'll be proud of
- Acknowledging that I would rather work with patient/"kind" people, and it takes less energy than being crabby. Inspired by a response to the question I previously asked, I often think "what kind of person do you want to be in this person's day- the one who helped or the one who made things more difficult/didn't help when you could?"
- Remembering the acronym KYMS, keep your mouth shut, for those times I really want to complain or be negative. Basically keep communication to the bare essentials and remove emotion.
posted by watrlily at 3:31 PM on March 22, 2018

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