How do we benefit from our frustrations?

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No one goes into business to be frustrated.


No one takes a new job to be frustrated.


No one accepts a promotion to be frustrated.


And yet, we often are. And we often find ourselves frustrated for long periods of time.


Why is that?


What benefit do we receive from our frustrations?


I can hear people asking: “What do you mean, what benefit?”


We humans constantly weigh the costs and the benefits of anything we are doing. If something is frustrating us – especially as an ongoing frustration – there must be some benefit we gain from the frustration, or some benefit we think we are gaining. That is the only way we really will put up with the frustration.


The benefits we receive, or think we receive, from our frustrations lock us in to these long-term frustrations. And most of us want out. We want to move from frustrated to, well, just about anything else.


To understand why we put up with our frustrations, we must understand a bit about what benefits we are receiving from them. And to do so, we must talk a bit about motivation. From motivation, we can look at how to break the frustration-benefit loop.


Our Motivations

Many of us are familiar with the work of Abraham Maslow, who did research in the 1940s and 1950s on human motivation. He believed that humans tend to their most basic needs first – such as food and water, rest, and warmth – before moving to needs such as belonging, accomplishment, and “achieving one’s full potential.” He classified human needs in a hierarchy – those we need to fulfill before we pay attention to others.


Sociologists and others have debated the relative validity of Maslow’s work for over 70 years. We find it instructive, though, when we look at why we put up with what frustrates us for so long.


In business, we tend to find a mixture of motivations – and that the hierarchy of those motivations is dependent on the relative importance of that motivation to us – in the moment, and in the long term.


We find that there are six sets of motivations, all having varying power in each person’s overall life, as well as in their organizational role and job context. They are:


  • Survival. Our lives are at stake, or we have our needs met. In a work context, the loss of a job, or of income, or even our sense of self – if wrapped up in our job, title, or role – these things poke at our motivation to survive.
  • Security. We feel safe, or unsafe. In a work context, this includes status, and not just physical safety. We are at a stable equilibrium.
  • Function. We want to reduce hassle, save time, save work, save money, gain quality, make money, organize, connect, simplify, and so forth.
  • Emotion. We want to experience happiness, wellness, reduce anxiety, be attractive, gain access, be rewarded.
  • Transformation. We want to belong, have hope, become the best we can be.
  • Impact. We want to leave a legacy. We want to do something or be something beyond ourselves.


Motivational Awareness

Humans are relatively good at speaking of their motivations in terms of aspirations: “I want to be famous.” “I want a house in that neighborhood.” At the same time, motivations often feel vulnerable. We don’t want to share our wildest dreams with someone because they might be laughed at – or worse.


Because we tend to hide the vulnerability of our big-picture or long-term motivations, we tend to be less aware of our motivations in the moment. Organizations have worked hard in recent decades to establish Emotional Intelligence as a baseline for workplace culture. Beyond emotional intelligence, though, motivational awareness still lurks in the shadows – hidden in conversations about vision, mission and values; and in discussions of employee engagement, compensation, and flexibility.


Motivational awareness comes out into the light when we finally ask the question: “why are we allowing ourselves to be frustrated?”


When we allow ourselves to answer, really answer, what do we get?


  • Do we believe our job – our income – will be at stake? This pokes hard at survival motivation.
  • Do we believe we are secure right now, and if we try to resolve our frustration, do we risk that security?
  • Do we believe the current state of affairs is providing us something functional – like a reduced hassle – making it less worthwhile to change?


And so on.


relieved man


Breaking the frustration-benefit loop

The frustration-benefit loop is where we stay frustrated because the benefits of the current state of affairs outweigh the risks of resolving the frustration. We cycle around between frustration and thinking that being frustrated is better than the alternatives we see. We loop around and around, frustrated, but stuck. And we want out.


How do we break this loop?


There are three tools we tend to employ to break this loop, and a fourth that happens to us:


  • Self-reflection. Create some time (preferably regularly) to reflect on what is motivating us and what is frustrating us. What do we want to do about it?
  • Outside advice. What have others done to reduce or eliminate their frustrations?
  • A coach or trusted advisor. A coach or outside advisor, at their best, offers us ways to examine our motivations and help us find the ones that give us the most benefit. Moreover, an advisor gives us space to test whether our beliefs about ourselves and our situation can change – and therefore help us move forward.
  • An acute crisis changes our calculations – usually giving us a moment of clarity.


These tools serve to change the cost-benefit calculation. They help us assess what we really want, and what we might believe (or do) that is holding us back from that.


What tools have you found the most helpful to break the frustration-benefit loop?


Interested in overcoming your frustrations? Let’s chat!


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Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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[email protected]

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[email protected]