Hacks for the Overwhelmed Manager

by Andy Scantland, Principal, Upside Partners

Life is tough for a leader these days. Many organizations are relying on smaller teams to get the same work done, technology connects us to our co-workers 24 hours a day and we are expected to spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings and conference calls.  Even for the most resilient among us, this can lead to stress and a sense of overwhelm. The numbers tell the story.  According to he highly-regarded research firm Gallup only about 35% of managers are engaged, 51% are not engaged and the remainder are in a worse space, what Gallup calls ‘actively disengaged’. The research is fairly well established that disengaged managers lead disengaged teams, resulting in lower productivity,  reduced financial results, higher turnover and, in general, a less-than-optimal way to go through life.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We all become overwhelmed sometimes. If your sense of overwhelm only happens once or twice a year, during a particularly rigorous project or because of an unusual deadline, then you can likely manage it pretty well with some forethought and good planning. But if your sense of overwhelm is an on-going thing which you face nearly every week, then you may want to look at how you are operating.  Below are some proven hacks for dealing with the constant state of overwhelm in your work.

  1. Look inside first—do I bring this on myself? If you are perpetually behind, it may not be your company, it may be you. Ask good friends and family about this and be open about what they tell you. Is there something I like about being too busy- does it give me a sense of worth or indispensability?  Am I staying crazy busy to avoid something else going on in my life? Once you give this some solid thought, you can decide consciously if that is how you want your life to be.
  2. Tackle your Monsters and let go of the rest. Don Kelly, friend and former colleague and the one of world’s best sales professionals, used to ask, “Where’s your focus: on your activity or on your results?”  When you boil it down, most teams are only responsible for a 3-4 results in an organization—I call these the Monsters—those huge overriding priorities which, when done poorly, result in loss of job or missed opportunity or dissatisfied customers.  Keep a list of your team’s Monsters nearby and remind yourself at least once a week of those things. Then keep a list of all of the discrete tasks you complete in a week. You will likely find that a healthy percentage of those tasks are unrelated to your 3-4 Monsters. I call these tasks the Yap Dogs, those jobs you find yourself doing every week or every month which take your precious time but don’t help you slay the Monsters. In week one, find three Yap Dogs and let go of them (or, better said, have them let go of you).  Tell the people involved (your manager, your colleagues, your HR professional) that, due to your focus on your priorities, you won’t be able to perform these tasks going forward but you’ll be glad to help them find another way to accomplish them in the future. Easier said than done?  Well, your list of Yap Dogs likely numbers in the 20s.  Take a look and identify the three that you can let go of with the least resistance.  You’ll find you’ve got a little more time to focus and a new sense of accomplishment.  In week two, go after that next group of Yap Dogs that are a little harder to let go of.  You may find it easier than you thought and also that you get better with practice.
  3. Practice saying, ‘No’. You know the old saying, ‘If I have one thing to get done, I’m going to give it to the busiest person in the room.’  It’s true, some people have an amazing capacity for organization and accomplishment in the short run.  And that strategy could work great if you are working on something for a week or a month.  But most managers are responsible for the on-going success of their operation and cannot continually be called upon for one-off game-saving plays.
    When you are asked to take on a new project or task, it’s essential to compare the request to your Monsters, those unmovable priorities.  If it’s not related to one of your Monsters, only two things can happen: first, a priority has to be shifted or you say, ‘No, thanks, that doesn’t fit within our priorities.’  That is a healthy discussion to have every time a new initiative is introduced- does it drive us forward or distract us from our on-going mission?
  4. Be ultra-disciplined about meetings. The stories about unproductive meetings are legendary. A study of executives from Marakon Associates found that less than 5% of survey respondents said their company had a rigorous and disciplined process for focusing management’s time on the most important issues. More than 65% of meetings are not even called for the purpose of making a decision. You’ve likely experienced the impact: extraordinary wasted time, frustration and reduced productivity. But you can change things. Here’s how:
    • Have an agenda for every meeting. At the top of the agenda should be the meeting’s purpose and what outcome is required (a decision, a plan, an idea or approach). Be aware of the value of every item on the agenda; exclude items that could be resolved in another way, make sure the attendees are the same people that can make the decision
    • Start and end on time. This is a show a respect for people’s time and contributions. You will find that if you make a habit if starting on time, people will find a way to show up on time. If the boss has a habit of showing up late, get started and do a one-minute brief for the boss when she shows up.
    • Any reading materials should be distributed at least 24 hours (ideally, longer) prior to the meeting. This allows you to focus on decisions rather than discussion. Do not spend time reviewing highly detailed information in the meeting; have the author summarize into no more than two-three pages with references to the deeper material.
    • Separate strategy discussions from operational discussions. These topics require different preparation and different mindsets. When you try to deal with both in a single meeting, the focus will almost certainly focus on the operational side.
    • Recap agreements before the meeting breaks up. If this is an on-going project status meeting, spend the first five minutes reviewing the agreements from the last meeting.  Stick to this and people will learn to get their stuff done or risk being embarrassed.

5. Finally, is your team set up for success? One of my definitions of a good leader is someone who removes the obstacles from those serving under her or him.  People will demonstrate amazing talent and resourcefulness when they clearly understand the goals and the roadblocks are taken out of the way. If you are overwhelmed, there’s a fair chance your team is feeling the same.  But, with a little proactive work, you can likely reduce the stress on everyone and perhaps make your team a little deeper and more engaged.

    • First, get people working in their strengths. It’s not enough to be good at something. A strength, also called a sweet spot, is a task you are good at in which where you feel energized and productive, where time flies. The evidence is fairly clear that people who work in their strengths every day are more productive, more engaged and perform at a higher level. Focus less on removing people’s flaws and more on organizing around people’s strengths.
    • Next, what can you shift? In discussions with your team, look for areas which can be shifted to make a better use of resources.  Ask people, ‘what tasks are getting in your way and how would you change it if you could?’ Often people have the answer at their fingertips but haven’t felt they had the license to suggest a change. What can you give up to a team member?  Look back at your list of tasks- is there someone on the team that could take this off your list?  Your criteria should include at least two questions: 1) is this a sweet spot of theirs and 2) will it help in their development?  In general, though, a task should be completed by the least senior person who can accomplish it competently. Most of us want to be challenged in our work.  But few of us benefit from being in a constant state of feeling overwhelmed. And the stress of being continually overwhelmed can lead to mistakes, loss of focus, key items falling through the cracks. The good news is that, by stepping back, you can often reduce the stress and develop your people at the same time.