Beat Stagnation At Work

February 18, 2024

Nobody likes the feeling of stagnation.

The car is 6 inches deep in the mud, and pushing the gas only digs you deeper.

You can exhaust yourself by sprinting to keep up with a to-do list that grows faster than you can check off items. Or you can resign yourself to going through the motions, doing just enough to keep from getting fired. In the meantime, a voice inside keeps saying that your choice doesn’t really matter because the result is the same. You lose either way.

Welcome to stagnation. To paralysis.

How did we even get here?

You were so excited when you first got that job offer and signed a contract. Where did the enthusiasm go?

This kind of stagnation is often rooted in a catch-22, a set of paradoxical demands that get placed onto workers. (This is assuming that you are already using good time management skills. If you need a refresher on time management, check out my previous article Become a Master Pre-crastinator.)

For example, do any of these statements sound familiar?

“Take time to be friendly and chat with your customers. But keep the line moving in record time.”

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” (Typically stated after almost working yourself to death.)

“You sacrificed so much to surpass your performance goals last year, and we’re so happy. We think you can do even better this year.”

“Due to instructions from corporate to downsize, John is no longer a part of the organization, so we are all going to have to be flexible to help pick up the extra slack. By the way, I need a status update on everybody’s project list by tomorrow because we are way behind on deadlines.”

I’ve even heard supervisors tell employees that they are being singled out for harder tasks because they are nice and don’t complain as much as their coworkers.

A system that punishes good behavior, rewards bad behavior, and pretends that there is no such thing as an opportunity cost will inevitably kill productivity.

And it happens all the time.

What is the remedy?


Stick with me here because it’s probably not the kind of focus you think I’m getting at. It’s not the caffein-fueled, eye-bleed focus of ten hours in front of a computer screen. Rather, it’s the ability to focus on how the fine details relate to the big picture. It’s the rhythmic flow between those two perspectives.

It’s the assertive stance you take when they are out of alignment.

It’s the ability to identify contradictory expectations and address them head on.

There are three strategies I typically recommend when people find themselves caught in these stagnation-inducing double binds.

1. Stay focused on good enough. In other words, don’t get pulled into perfectionism when it’s not necessary. Be a pragmatist, not a perfectionist. Know where the threshold of “good enough” is, know when you’ve crossed it, and know when to move on to the next task.

If you don’t have a sense of where that line is, talk to your boss.

You can say something like: “How pragmatic do you want me to be on this task? I want to make sure I don’t spend extra time perfecting this if that’s not what you feel is our priority right now.”

Here’s another way you can phrase it: “I’ve been guilty of perfectionism from time to time, and I want to make sure that doesn’t get in the way of the big picture. Can you share with me what you typically look for to know when a task has crossed the line of ‘good enough’?”

2. Learn expectation management skills. The ability to manage the expectations of others can prevent many sleepless nights. This involves being assertive without being aggressive. It means letting people know what is and is not a reasonable goal, deadline, or set of responsibilities. Many people fear that pushing back on the expectations of others will make them appear weak, uncooperative, or incompetent. In reality, it often has the opposite effect. When setting expectations, put the emphasis on what you can do and be clear about the cost of meeting that goal.

You can try saying: “I can get you that report by Monday, but that will mean deprioritizing other tasks. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page about that.”

Or: “Based on the description, this sounds like a 16-hour task. That means other tasks might not get done till later or possibly not at all.”

Another option is: “I’d be happy to help pick up the slack on this project, but it will likely come at the cost of lower numbers in my overall productivity. Does that seem like a reasonable trade-off?”

3. Document the moving goal post. Recognize bait and switch. Call out the foot in the door. You have to get comfortable with recognizing and challenging common forms of manipulation. Everybody will be the recipient of this kind of action at some point in their professional life.

Don’t lose your cool when it happens. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. There may not be any malice behind it. Just be willing to address it when you notice it happening. Be firm about what you are and are not willing to do and ask for clarification as needed.

And as the strategy suggests…put it in writing. Don’t expect that a verbal agreement or handshake is going to settle future disagreements about what the expectations are/were.

Putting it in writing can be as simple as following up a verbal conversation with an email summarizing the action items, asking if you captured the conversation and decisions correctly, and requesting a written confirmation in reply.

It can as simple as: “Just to help jog my memory later on, can you confirm that this summary lines up with what we discussed?”.

Hopefully these suggestions give you some ideas of how to confront unrealistic or unfair expectations when they show up.

If you are on the managerial side, be proactive about implementing these kinds of conversations and procedures. Ask for feedback. And when people give you feedback, always respond first with “thank you.” The more you model sincere appreciation for bringing obstacles to your attention, the more your employees will trust that you are trying to create a system that works for everyone, and the more they will want to give you their best every day.

As usual, it can be helpful to set yourself a goal of trying out one new strategy before the end of the month. Pay attention to how others respond and how your overall energy and mood change as a result.

Best of luck.


Let's connect.

Call me on 806-600-4609 or submit this form for a free 15 min consultation and I will contact you as soon as possible.

Thank You! I've Received Your Message and Will Be In Contact Within 24 Hours.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.