Moving Out of Overwhelm
Feeling overwhelmed happens. For me, the feeling is a combination of my inability to discern which challenge takes priority, and a loss of access to solutions with a feeling of dread that I might fail.
When I’m in a state of overwhelm, I cannot lead effectively.
Each of us has our own way of responding to this kind of stress. My emotional response is to isolate or to get rigid and inflexible. Others get more chaotic and reactionary, some people cry, some get angry.
First, there’s a habitual emotional response. Once we come to terms with our emotions, and if we’re determined, there’s a second response with an eye towards resolution. At this point, most of us buckle down.
It’s a habit—going back to something tried and true in an effort to alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed. Buckling down might be called a problem-solving habit.
This is a common pattern. Leaders are faced with so many challenges, they don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed and double down on their problem-solving habit: “If I just buckle down, I’ll get through this.”
Without some intervention to pull the person out of this, they can begin to live in a trance-like state of overwhelm.
But, many leaders live in this state—they struggle to access clarity about priorities, their solutions are short-term and not very effective. They’re so busy trying to hold down the fort, or catch up that they don’t have time to manage, complete projects, attend meetings, create, play—and most importantly, enjoy the rewards of leadership.
When I was a sous chef, I was in an almost constant state of overwhelm. The minute I thought I had it figured out, someone would quit, and we’d fill that position then someone else was going on vacation. I may have spent a couple years in that trance-like state, until it was pointed out to me that I was doing the same thing over and over (buckling down) but expecting different results.
Luckily, I had a boss that pulled me out of the trance. The advice he gave me was a metaphor: to imagine that each task was a monkey on my back and the way out of this overwhelm was to take monkeys off my back and put them on the backs of others, who I thought could handle them.
It worked. However, it’s a bit crude and doesn’t quite resolve the issue of what happens when you add monkeys to someone else’s back and the overwhelm it could cause them.
In learning more about sharing leadership, it has become clear to me that if you get to know people and find out what they care about, you can connect the dots between what they care about and new responsibilities that could add to their leadership experience and make them more valuable in any position they may hold.
When I was a kid staying home sick (or faking it), I loved to get my pillow and blanket, curl up on the couch and watch Mel Jazz - he had a TV show at noon featuring old movies. I don’t remember if they were always Western’s but that’s what I remember watching on a sick day.
Something that seemed to happen a lot in a Western movie was that the sheriff would find himself alone up against a gang. When it came time to go after the gang, the sheriff would deputize a group of citizens, bestowing upon them the powers of officers of the law. Then they would all mount up and the posse would ride off to bring the gang to justice.
The sheriff doesn’t need to force anyone to participate, they are always willing because they care about the safety of the town too (at least in the movies).
As my delegation skills improved and I started to think in terms of deputizing, rather than un-monkeying, I also began to see a contrast that makes deputizing a great way to share leadership.
Un-monkeying is a bit of using power to give others more to do—giving them “ownership” of duties or tasks.
Deputizing is an invitation to accept more responsibility and authority, and connect it to something they care about. It looks like giving them “authorship” of that part of the business.
And giving people tasks to complete is also an appropriate thing to do, at the appropriate time.
The state of overwhelm is the dead end of problem solving. It’s like trying to drive while staring at the hood of the car and not the road. You are eventually destined for a crash.
As you think about your own overwhelm, and what you might do to pull yourself above it, give up on the idea that you need to do it yourself, or give people more to do. Instead, think of the responsibilities you hold, that could be transferred to someone else for the long-term.
An example for this within the hospitality industry would be:
I lost a restaurant manager, and now, in addition to my current responsibilities, I need to manage the restaurant.
Un-monkeying would be finding someone to open, someone to do the scheduling, someone to close—duties and tasks, this keeps the worries on my shoulders.
Deputizing would be finding a person, or people who connect the responsibility of the operation of the restaurant, as being something they care about.
The person or people you “find” for this would be based on your knowledge of the people there, and specifically what they care about. For instance, if one of them is in college to become a doctor or a lawyer, invite them into the experience they would gain from leading the restaurant and how it could contribute to them being a better doctor or lawyer.
In An Everyone Culture, a book referenced in previous blog posts, the authors point to a trend in companies they have studied who successfully grow leaders by sharing leadership:
When they asked managers; “What do you like most about working here?” one of the most frequent responses they heard was: “I like the challenge, as soon as I start to settle into a position, I get promoted into a position that is over my head.”
When they asked managers: “What is it you like least about working here?” They heard: “As soon as I start to settle into a position, I get promoted into a position that is over my head.”
Here’s an experiment you can do in 5 minutes to intercept future overwhelm:
Think of what you know about your people’s individual hopes and desires for their future. Pick one person, see if you can make a connection between their future well-being, and a new responsibility for them, preferably one that frees up time for you, or is something you have hoped to get to, but haven’t found the time.
If you don’t yet know enough about people’s hopes and desires for their future, then find 5 minutes per day - learning about them, from them. After you have made some connections, proceed:
Craft a compelling invitation from Invitation as a Leadership Tool - not for tasks, but for a new responsibility with corresponding authority; and in transferring to them, the power to reach their own goals for their future while increasing their impact on the organization.
A larger experiment would be to engage your leadership team in a dialogue about what organizational responsibilities they would like to transfer, then determine the best route to create a new level of responsibility in your organization.