Most leaders experience overwhelm in leadership at some stage of their development journey. We can feel overcommitted, stressed, under pressure and like we just can’t get on top of things. There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it.
Conventional wisdom would suggest we need to prioritise better, do a time management course or simply learn to ‘say no’. I’m here to tell you why these are empty, surface level fixes that will NEVER truly solve the problem.
And that’s because there’s something much deeper going on, here.
WHAT IS OVERWHELM?
Overwhelm is the sensation that we are drowning in our leadership role, and as an unwanted free bonus (like a set of steak knives) it comes with strong, negative effects like feeling relentlessly inundated with work, emotionally exhausted and powerless to overcome the mountain of work before us – or even to reduce it to a sustainable level going forward.
WHAT DOES OVERHWHELM FEEL LIKE?
Leaders who are overwhelmed have an intensely emotional experience of work. We can feel:
- Guilt when we say ‘no’ to more work, or can’t deliver what we’ve promised on time or to a good standard;
- Frustration that we can never get on top of workload;
- Thinly veiled anger that we always seem to be doing more than others, or picking up the pieces of unfinished work;
- An overall sense of inadequacy because no matter how much work we take on, it never seems like ‘enough’.
Not a fun place from which to lead, and certainly uninspiring mojo for a team to follow.
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON, HERE?
Old school thinking would say that better ‘time management’ is needed for the overwhelmed leader. However, this is truly not a matter of how organised we are, how few interruptions we can achieve or how to manage our time via important versus urgent quadrants. #justno #noquadrantmodels #itaintabouttime
There’s a much deeper problem going on here, and it takes a good dose of courage to understand and confront it.
You see, at a deeper level we are all managing 3 fears:
- The fear of not being good enough;
- The fear of not belonging or fitting in;
- The fear of not being loved.
These fears are often shaped by experiences in our early years, and the strategies we develop to cope tend to continue to be drawn upon throughout the later years of our lives – even though the context and circumstances are completely different.
The fear playing out for leaders who habitually overwhelmed by taking on too much work is the ‘fear of not being good enough’. Essentially, the strategy the overwhelmed leader deploys to meet this need is taking on increasing responsibilities and volumes of work to prove (to ourselves, and others) that we are indeed ‘good enough’.
When we say this out loud, it sounds kind of ridiculous – how can our value as a person possibly increase by generating that extra report, staying back late to perfect that document (which, let’s face it, perhaps only one person might skim over) or taking on that extra responsibility to show we can ‘take one for the team’?
The real problem is that the need to feel ‘good enough’ can’t be met externally through the work we do. It must be fulfilled from an internal source. It can only be met with an internal knowingness, or remembering, that who we are – and how much we achieve – is already enough.
We are enough.
When we remember that we were born with an innate value and worthiness, that can’t be increased or decreased by the amount of reports we deliver today, we are finally liberated from the need to continually prove our value through work. #truthbomb
CONSEQUENCES FOR OVERWHELMED LEADERS
As leaders, when we are constantly trying to prove our worth through work achievements, this will likely have troubling impacts for us and our team. The most common effects are:
- Both the leader and the team having too many ‘priorities’(read: no priorities), too much work to humanly deliver, and a lack of clarity about what’s truly essential – leading to a feeling of being defeated before we begin;
- As leaders, we start to appear like we can’t cope in our roles because we’re always flustered and overwhelmed. Funnily enough, this is the exact opposite of the ‘good enough’ feeling we are trying to achieve!
- We start to doubt ourselves even more, because we never truly experience the fun of that winning feeling in leadership when we’re kicking goals with the team (often because we’re too overwhelmed to really achieve anything substantial). This only increases our fear and doubt about whether we’re actually ‘good enough’ as a leader.
HOW DO WE SOLVE THE REAL PROBLEM?
When coaching leaders, we first identify and acknowledge that the pattern of not feeling ‘good enough’ in our leadership role is also the source of taking on too much. We identify together the strategies we deploy as ‘habit’ to overcome this fear. Then, we find functional, sustainable, internal sources of knowing that who we are is already enough.
Is the fear of not being good enough playing out for you in some way? What do you think?
If any of this connects with you, it’s likely that you are managing the fear of not being ‘good enough’ at work. This WILL be having an impact on your team.
My suggestion is to cancel any plans for that time management program which will only ever deliver a temporary, surface-level fix. When you’re ready to do the REAL work of addressing your patterns of overwhelm, just reach out for a conversation – I’m here to help you.