A personal check engine light

Sep 24, 2023

When you notice feelings of resentment, take a moment to explore what that warning sign is trying to tell you before it escalates into something more.

While I’m a pretty agreeable person, there is one thing that often hits me square in the face, letting me know that something is not right – resentment.

Resentment shows up in different ways for different people but tends to have a similar underlying theme. Some people resent when others don’t work as hard. Others (like me) are resentful when our extra work goes unnoticed. Still others are resentful of perceived unfair advantages. No matter why you are resentful, I would challenge you to see that feeling as a “check engine” light – a sign that something isn’t right and needs to be explored.

Emotions are difficult to put into words and even harder to express in business. After all, being professional usually means ignoring emotions. Brené Brown’s definition from Atlas of the Heart struck me: “Resentment is the feeling of frustration, judgment, anger, ‘better than,’ and/or hidden envy related to perceived unfairness or injustice. It’s a feeling we often experience when we fail to set boundaries or ask for what we need.”

Boundaries! I should have known. Some people are boundary pros, hence the trend of quiet quitting. Then there are people like me – people who see themselves as productive and competent, so we say yes to too much too often. Then, we explode like a volcano, burn out, and all the good will we hoped to gain from our helping is ruined. Just like when I missed those oil changes, the feeling of resentment was my check-engine light, warning me that something needed attention.

Boundaries are a fascinating concept because they’re both personal and universal. During the global pandemic, we all witnessed how the boundaries between work and personal life blurred immensely. We found ourselves checking emails at 10 p.m. and working on weekends without a clear line separating our professional and personal spheres. As restrictions were lifted, it became evident that this 24/7 work cycle wasn’t healthy. Many companies started implementing universal boundaries, like standard work hours or including a note in email signatures such as, “I don’t expect you to reply to my message outside of business hours.” While these universal boundaries are important, identifying your personal ones can be challenging. Many times, the boundaries involved with resentment stem from a perception of unfairness. It’s not fair that I stay until 8 and my neighbor leaves at 4. It’s unfair that this young teammate is now an associate principal. It’s unfair that I do so much extra and am not praised for it.

If you’re like me or you manage someone like me, take note. Protecting your greatest asset (your team) is a key role for any manager. Unaddressed resentments can eat away at people and sometimes managers need to step in to prevent metaphorical engine failure. Here are some things I’ve noticed about resentment – both for me to work on individually and what I wish managers had done.

  • Decode the signal. The check engine light in your car covers a variety of issues – some big, others small. As the car owner, you need to dig deeper to discover exactly what the light is saying. Same thing for that resentment. For me, my resentment always comes from my workload. I started exploring this more – am I doing too much and hoping the praise counteracts my exhaustion? If I’m resentful of someone’s promotion, have I worked with my manager to map out my career goals? What am I grumbling about to my spouse and what is lying deeper in those statements?
    Managers, pay attention. Staying aware can prevent resentment buildup in your group. When a team member consistently works overtime or on weekends, pay attention to their rest period. Don’t assume that the employee will “push back;” some will see this as weakness or selfishness. Pay attention to growth paths and expectations. At review time, work to set clearer growth paths so people aren’t surprised about other team members’ promotions.
  • The story I’m telling myself. This is a phrase from another Brown book, Rising Strong. She uses it as a powerful reflection tool to help identify facts from speculation. The human brain likes to find patterns and create meaning. This means we may see connections that aren’t steeped in fact but that help us make sense of a situation (often painting us in the best light). Is your coworker not working as hard, or do they have a flex schedule that lets them leave at 4 p.m.? Does your manager realize the time commitment of this volunteer assignment, or can you pass this to someone else? Managers, this phrase applies to you too! Does your team member always want to organize the happy hour, or do they feel unable to say no?
  • Let’s start talking. Personally, expressing resentment was nearly impossible. I wanted to seem helpful and competent, not needy and overwhelmed. I wish my managers had reached out when I was consistently overworked. Better yet, I wish they had forced me to release some tasks. Overwork was an addictive cycle that ultimately left me feeling exploited. If you do have an open relationship with your manager, see if you can start a dialog. Are there skills or milestones you need to reach before you gain a promotion? Can you work as a team to manage priorities so you can avoid longer workdays? Is your current load leading you to burn out?
    I’ve learned from my multiple painful burnout episodes. A few years ago, I embraced “my year of no.” I said no to a variety of extras, including room parent, happy hour organizer, and committee chair. I realized that the story I was telling myself was that if I didn’t help, I was selfish. I also admitted to my manager that I could no longer travel twice a month, which was wreaking havoc on family. I suggested we focus on making the most of my time locally. I braced myself for pushback, but it turns out my manager had no idea the struggle the travel was causing, and she happily redistributed my work.

Since I’m not a mechanic, I can’t proactively interpret what my car needs. Car manufacturers created the light to help owners maintain the health of my car. Similarly, resentment may be that warning sign. Can you continue ignoring those signs? Of course. If you do, do you run the risk of standing by the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck? Most likely. Take a moment to explore what your resentment may be trying to tell you. Managers, pay attention and keep communications open, especially during review season. When that light pops on, act quickly before it turns into something more. Emotions are telling us things; it’s up to all of us to pay attention and respond. 

Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM, is a senior associate and director of business development at Kirksey Architecture. Contact her at jankid@kirksey.com.

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