We All Have “Baggage” from Bad Work Experiences; It’s Time to Unpack It

I’ve recently been realizing that many of my work struggles come from unresolved issues I had at old companies. Just as bad friends and broken relationships can scar us personally, bad companies and coworkers can scar us at work.

Most of us know about the baggage in our personal lives. (And thanks to an increased awareness of mental health, many of us are starting to heal.) Yet I suspect that many of us view our work baggage differently. Improvement at work seems to be narrowly focused on performance targets and technical skills. Neither the beauty of healing or the ugliness of trauma seem “professional.” Thus they are left undisclosed, even as many of us suffer from the latter and are in need of the former.

If you’re ready to start resolving some of the baggage you carry to work, here are three steps you can take.

1. Explore About Your Workview

First, let’s tackle what a “Workview” is. I found the idea while reading Designing Your Life by Dave Burnett & Dave Evans, two Stanford professors who teach a famous class of the same name. The book covers lots of ground, but one of my favorite concepts is the idea of a Workview, which should “address the critical issues related to what work is and what it means to you.”

To understand your Workview, the authors recommend writing about it. In the book, they recommend spending thirty minutes on these questions to help you get some clarity:

  • Why work?
  • What’s work for?
  • What does work mean?
  • How does it relate to the individual, others, society?
  • What defines good or worthwhile work?
  • What does money have to do with it?
  • What do experience, growth, and fulfillment have to do with it?

The goal of this exercise is not to help you unpack your baggage, but to identify it. I didn’t even know I had work baggage at all until a conversation with a kind coworker who pointed out my lingering mistrust for any and all organizations.

Reflecting on my Workview, I can see these bags in my fierce independence and my insistence that work not dominate my life. While neither of these things are bad in and of themselves, the trouble is that they are reactions. When I don’t understand my Workview, these reactionary beliefs lurk unaddressed, wreaking havoc on my work life.

Now that I’m aware of these reactions, I can take steps to rectify them.

2. Write About What Negatively Shaped Your Workview

This is where the real unpacking happens. To identify what parts of your Workview are reactionary and harmful, it’s simplest to start with the hurtful events you’ve experienced at work.

I had a hard time with this at first. I think we expect ourselves to be so professional and put together at work that we try to leave our emotions at the door. Pain at work gets buried in a mad rush to be productive and feel useful.

For me, writing about what negatively shaped my Workview required going back to high school. While there, I worked with an organization that played me like a fiddle. The leader filled our ears with praise while letting us do his job for him. Years later, I realized I’d been duped and thus was born my fierce individualism and distrust of any and all organizations.

While this belief does keep me safe, it doesn’t always serve me. Not all organizations are out to use me, and I miss great ones in by distrusting all of them.

As you write about what negative events informed your Workview, work hard to connect the incidents to beliefs that may keep you safe but also hold you back. These are real areas of change and growth.

One last tip for this part of the process comes from the magnificent book on leadership at work, Reboot by Jerry Colonna. In it, Jerry asks the question, “How does this belief serve me?” That question is one that helps me understand my most irrational beliefs.

Asking it helped me figure out why I held onto a stubborn belief that companies can’t be trusted: It kept me safe. If I could just keep the company at arms reach, I could assure myself safety from ever being used again. Now with the benefit of experience, I can see that some companies, like Atomic Object, are worth the risk of trusting. I no longer need that belief to protect me, and I can let it go, thanking it for keeping me safe all those years.

3. Bring Up Negative Feelings at Work

The last habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to “sharpen the saw,” or to work continuously on improvement and renewal. You’ve had negative experiences at work before, and, even at the best of companies, you will have negative work experiences again. To avoid creating new baggage, we must address the mistakes of our past.

Our baggage piles up because we avoid it. Because vulnerability isn’t always considered “professional,” it can be extra hard to bring up the hard stuff at work. Yet avoiding it runs the risk of building resentment that can harden into a reactionary Workview like mine.

The only way to dodge this is to consistently bring up negative feelings at work. While this can turn into complaining if done badly, at its best, it is more like maintenance, a sharpening of the saw.

To help you do this well, I cannot recommend more highly Crucial Conversations, which held in great reverence at Atomic Object. The subtitle of the book says it all: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.

If you’re not up for a book-length saga, check out my coworker Bella’s great series on managing conflict at work: Resolving Conflict when Others Disappoint.

We all drag our baggage to work, though it’s both less visible and harder to deal with than our home baggage. To help unpack it, remember to:

  1. Gather it up by writing your Workview.
  2. Unpack it by identifying the cause of reactionary beliefs.
  3. Keep it unpacked by bringing up negative feelings at work.