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Overworked and Overwhelmed

By Tom Heinselman

In 360º surveys, a typical observation is that many leaders overcommit. If that is a valid conclusion about leaders, then it is reasonable to assume that leaders, in turn, create an environment for others where they feel overworked and overwhelmed.

The following factors are commonly mentioned as contributing to being overcommitted, overwhelmed, or overworked (or the perception of being so):

  • It is the result of the shrinking economy and subsequent downsizing, where people are being asked to do more with less;
  • Businesses are becoming more complex with a corresponding increase in inter-dependencies across functions. These multiple accountabilities are competing for scarce time and resources;
  • Cycle times and response times are getting shorter and becoming more critical to competitive advantage;
  • Performance expectations continue to increase in order to stay competitive;
  • Everything seems to be urgent;
  • Business targets and strategies change quickly and more frequently than in the past.

There is a reality that must be interjected at this point in the discussion. Leaders often can do little or nothing to change the volume of work. If a department is responsible for a certain type of work, it's unrealistic to think that the department leader is going to say, "My staff is really busy right now, so I'm going to decline this assignment." The work must be done and you're it. Even so, the first attempt by the leader should be to manage work volumes to a reasonable level. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get a clear sense of direction and priorities from your manager. One of the emerging distinguishing characteristics of the effective leader of the future is an ability to focus on the vital few. It is critical for an effective leader to know the most important task and do it first. It is becoming impossible to do everything. In managing work volume, at least ensure that you're covering the critical issues first.
  • Become suspect of every existing process, task, meeting, and report. Perform a zero-based analysis of these time-consuming activities to ensure they are adding value.
  • Take a risk and make some personal choices regarding assignment of work. It is not always possible to get a clear sense of direction and priorities from one's manager.
  • Negotiate the scope, quality, and/or delivery date of the work. If accepting a piece of work will throw the department into a whirlwind, try to negotiate. Propose delivery of certain parts on the initial date and the rest at a later date. Propose a lower level of quality that will be sufficient for the intended purpose. Propose delivery of the work as presented but at a later date.

Assuming a leader has done everything possible to manage the workload, the next area for focus is the manner in which work is assigned. There are people who express a sense of being overwhelmed with their amount of work and, in fact, do seem to be overloaded. However, there are situations where the actual amount of work may have little to do with an individual's perception of being overworked. A leader can positively impact perceptions about work simply by managing the "social dynamics" around the work. Here are some suggestions for assigning and engaging others in their work:

  • Ideally, in advance, involve people in the decision about whether or not to accept an assignment. Discuss time requirements, scheduling, personal commitments, vacation plans, and the scope of the project. Armed with more information, go back and negotiate the scope, quality, or delivery date as discussed earlier.
  • If you can't involve people in the decision, consult with them before finalizing the commitment. You may still accept the work, but at least you will understand its impact on them. This may appear to be simply a courtesy, but it will reframe how they see the commitment. People will appreciate that you respected them enough to at least discuss it before committing. Listen to people. Hear their pain. Be sympathetic.
  • If you can't involve or consult and it's a done deal that your team must accept the work, at least inform people as soon as possible of the new commitment. People will appreciate as much advance notice as possible. This allows them to prepare themselves to accommodate the request. The worst situation is for people to have a few days notice when the leader has known for weeks.
  • When communicating additional work, especially when you have no wiggle room, offer a thorough "social accounting" for why this is the best outcome you can manage. Be honest and upfront. Take responsibility. Avoid blaming others for the situation.
  • Check in with people periodically and get a sense of how they're doing. Understand how hard they're working and how it is impacting their personal lives. You may uncover a concern where your involvement could make a difference. Perhaps you find an area where you could run interference and relieve some of the pressure. Perhaps you decide to help with some of the work yourself or hire some temporary help. At a minimum, show concern for the person and demonstrate your willingness to help. It won't always be enough to simply show concern: along the way, you must occasionally find real ways to help relieve some of the pressure.

It is a reality of our time that expectations are high, people are pressed to the limit, and competition is the toughest it's ever been. It's also true that we are creative people who solve the world's most difficult and perplexing problems. Leaders can make a difference in this issue of overcommitment. It is not sufficient to simply throw work at people. It requires sensitivity to people, a deliberate and sincere attempt to deal with the pressures, an openness to alternatives, and a willingness to try some new approaches.

Tom Heinselman specializes in the development of leaders and teams at all levels through the use of workshop experiences, assessments and coaching.
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