Strategic Coaching and Resources for Leaders since 1979

Leading through frustration
is not really leading

By Jane H. Firth
Article appeared in the Philadelphia Business Journal March 30, 2012.
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As a leader, when you allow frustrations to go from bad to worse because you’d rather not confront the person or situation causing them, you are doing yourself and those you lead a disservice.

Imagine that someone who works for you fails to give you what is promised over and over again. To make matters worse, your other team members are feeling the brunt of this person’s noncompliance, and they are looking to you to do something about it.

In the absence of a constructive, direct way to deal with your frustrations, you might handle them at work in ways that you will regret. In addition, you might carry them with you across boundaries in your life; you might bring them home with you, find yourself feeling more anxious, have trouble sleeping, or take things out on someone who has nothing to do with the reason you feel frustrated in the first place.

Many leaders view confrontation as a negative experience they’d rather avoid. To confront can certainly mean to challenge someone in a negative way, but it can also mean to meet something head-on in a constructive way, one that leaves you with a sense of dominion over your frustrations.

What does it mean to have dominion, and why does this matter to me as a leader? Most of us want to control things we cannot control. Trying to control the uncontrollable is futile. Here is a useful definition of dominion.

Dominion is the capacity to have constructive detachment. It is the ability to be adept at:
• Being present to our emotional reactions to people and situations.
• Being able to transform our emotional reactions into clarity and objectivity.
• Helping ourselves and others deal well with difficulties, roadblocks, and challenges.
• Intervening effectively in toxic situations.

Think of frustration as an important signal that can lead to a sense of dominion over the very thing frustrating you. Think of it as an important warning sign to close your office door, detail and depersonalize the frustration you are feeling, see your responsibility in the matter, see the other person’s responsibility in the matter, and choose an objective approach. Objectivity is the first step to resolution. It will empower you to deal with your situation effectively.
• Write on a piece of paper, or have a dialogue with yourself, answering the following questions.
• What happened? Why am I feeling frustrated?
• When did I start to feel frustrated with this person or situation?
• What isn’t sitting right with me?
• What is my responsibility in what has occurred?
• What is theirs?

You might start like this: I care about this person, but I feel really angry that they don’t just do what they’re supposed to. I’ve asked for their cooperation, but month after month they turn their reports in late and compromise the team’s effectiveness. I have so much on my plate I haven’t wanted to have to deal with this. But enough is enough!

You must clarify responsibility. It is a common mistake to think you should be able to control someone else’s behavior — even if that person reports to and is accountable to you.

As a leader, your responsibility is not to have control over their behavior, but to have a clear set of direction, priorities, defined expectations and goals that you have developed together and agreed upon. Their responsibility is to come through and be someone who can be counted on to deliver what they have promised and is expected of them. If they don’t, that is not your responsibility. But it is your responsibility if you fail to hold them to account.

So where do you go from here? How do you get from frustration, to dominion in a situation you’d rather not have to deal with in the first place?

The crux of the matter rests on overcoming confusion about responsibility. On your part you gave them clear direction, set the priorities, and defined the expectations for their role. On their part they are responsible for how they perform, how they meet their responsibilities, and whether their behavior contributes to the teams’ efforts to accomplish the organization’s goals and objectives — or not.

You can let them know that you would like this to work out, but that it is up to them to do what is required. You might say the following:I need to understand your intent, and your commitment. Mine is to have the reports we need in on time and to ask you one last time to insure that this happens on a consistent basis. We all have times when we are pressed and need to renegotiate a deadline, but this is a consistent situation month after month. What can I count on you for?

It is important to remember when you find yourself reluctant to confront a situation that you can do so in a way that can relieve frustration and lead the way towards an effective resolution and result. In my example, the approach taken may or may not result in a change in your employees’ behavior. For now, this person has a chance to rise to the occasion, and come through with something they are responsible for in their role. If they don’t, and you have to take further steps, you will have the confidence of knowing that you gave them the opportunity to be accountable and change their behavior.

Good leaders are usually good people who care about and want the best for those who work for and with them. While you might not relish the opportunity of confronting frustrating people and situations, especially if it might result in letting someone go, you also have to do what is best for your organization. By taking deliberate steps to deal with things with greater dominion, you will free yourself to be more and more effective.

Jane H. FirthJANE H. FIRTH is founder and CEO of Firth Leadership Partners of Haverford. She is an executive coach, consultant and seminar leader in the realm of leadership development. She can be reached at