Get Back on Track When Overwhelm Strikes

A few weeks back I was sitting with a friend discussing a challenging situation he’s walking through with his team. He was pouring out his heart on their level of disengagement, how frustrated he was with this one’s behavior, another’s commitment to work, and another one’s attitude. He needed them to rally and finish the year strong but just couldn’t seem to get through to them. With all of the other people his direct reports lead, he could not allow this to infect the department further. We were walking through options and I was giving a little advice but mostly listening and asking questions. Then he made a comment about how he’d need to leave at some point to take a call on severe bullying at his daughter’s school. It occurred to me that he had left early a few days to take his son to various appointments for stress and anxiety already that week. I finally just stopped, looked at him and said, how are you doing all of this? With that comment his entire body language changed. He slumped over the table and with a defeated look on his face and a tear in his eye he said, I’m not. I’m not doing it well. I need help.

Expectations on people are high and in the virtual environment they are increasing in all areas of life. I know the first thought here is that I’m talking about my friend needing to wear all of these hats. I’m not. I’m talking about each person in this story. There is a kid experiencing stress and anxiety to the point of needing appointments with multiple doctors in a week. The bullies in a school are bullies because they’re trying to control some aspect of their lives. Each of the ‘problem’ employees are dealing with something (multiple somethings) outside of work that is impacting their performance. Now this man, father, leader is having to hold all of it and in his words, is not doing it well and needs help.

The best thing about this story, he recognized the need for help and reached out for it. He has one million and one irons in the fire and rather than trying to act like he’s superhuman just because he feels the weight of everything shifting to him, he recognized his limit. So many of us miss that part. By reaching out and just sharing where you’re at you get validation and a chance to process with another person everything that has been in your head. The questions that person asks will very likely spark some new ideas on how to handle or give you permission to act on something you were considering. The next best thing, he was able to prioritize on the large scale. He knew that there were difficult things going on with his team, with his work/job in general but first and foremost, there were things that needed his attention for his family. While he wanted to work on improving his team, nothing was going to keep him from taking the call from the school or getting his son to his appointments. This is critical and I’m so proud of him for taking that step.

Now, why did he come to me? He needed another perspective on what he could do to improve the attitude on his team. He needed help ordering his priorities within the team and knew that bouncing ideas off someone who has a different style but experience with his team (even if limited) could assist. This is exactly what I did. I didn’t tell him that what he was doing was wrong, or that he needed to make huge changes in his approach. I listened and validated what was happening with his team and their situation and asked questions or offered suggestions based on their strengths and skills.

First, he needed to define how he wanted this all to work. Where should he spend his time? What would the team look like, including his involvement, in a perfect world? Then he could start to work on how he would need to organize the work to support that strategy. What things can people on the team take off his (or other people’s) plate that would allow them to focus and take more ownership? What work was possible to be done by someone other than him? Finally he could look at what was needed for the team to feel good. What type of work and projects could reengage those who have been struggling? Where might he need to shift to another style with team members to the criticality of their behavior? What outside support is needed at all levels of the team?

This is a pretty simple, repeatable practice when things are feeling overwhelming.

  • Recognize you need help and ask for it.
  • Prioritize and develop a strategy based on those priorities.
  • Determine how to tactically support the strategy, this will include some sort of delegation.
  • Find resources (be they through you or external) to support the people.

I know that there are people who will cringe at my order here. People should be first. I get it and while I don’t appreciate the should I understand the unease. A lot of people try to start with the people and the trouble there is you don’t necessarily know what you’re solving for when you do. If you don’t understand the priorities and the strategy to realize them, you won’t be able to find the right support and you won’t know what outcome you’re driving at. Also, for those non-corporate leaders, yes, this applies across the board too. You can use this practice to help you get to the bottom of a struggling team, church counsel, teenager, etc.

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