Leadership Barometer 32 Overload

January 7, 2020

Overload is a very common phenomenon in organizations. This article deals with the problem, the reasons it exists, and offers some solutions.

As organizations wrestle with global competition and economic cycles, the pressure on productivity is more acute each year. I do not see an end to the pressure to accomplish more work with fewer resources.

There comes a point when leaders overload workers beyond their elastic limit, and they become dysfunctional or simply burn out. As the constant requests for more work with fewer resources starts to take a physical toll on the health of workers at all levels, people become justifiably angry.

I see evidence of what I call “load rage” in nearly every organization in which I work.

Glass half full

An interesting flip side of this problem is the observation made by many researchers, and also myself, that working human beings habitually operate at only a fraction of their true capability.

I have read estimates of organizations extracting on average something like 30-50% of the inherent capability in the workforce; some estimates are even lower.

It would be impossible for anyone to continually operate at 100% of capacity, because that would require the adrenal glands to secrete a constant stream or adrenaline that would kill the person. However, if the estimates of typical capacity used are accurate, there is still a lot of upside in people, so why the “load rage”?

The Leader’s role

Leaders can help reduce the problem by reminding people that they really do have a lot more control over how loaded they feel by taking some pragmatic actions. Here are a few ideas:

Sliding scale
We tend to feel overloaded because we base our perception of how hard we are working at any moment on a sliding scale. We base our feelings of load on how busy we are, not on what percentage of our capacity is being consumed.

Many of our activities are simply traps that we invent because of habitual patterns in our daily work. We tolerate a multitude of inhibiting actions that steal seconds from our minutes and minutes from our hours.

We tend to excuse these diversions as not being very important, but in reality they are exceedingly relevant to our output and to our stress level. Let me cite a few examples:

The dreaded inbox

Look at the inbox of your e-mail account. If you are like most people, there are more than a few notes waiting for your attention. We have all kinds of reasons (really rationalizations) for not keeping our inbox cleaned out each day.

I will share that at this moment I have 4 “read” notes and no “unread” notes in my inbox, and it is stressing me out. I need to get that down to zero, but right now I am consumed writing this article.

If we are honest, it is inescapable that having more than 2-3 notes waiting attention will cause a few milliseconds of search time when we want to do anything on e-mail. That time is lost forever, and it cannot be replaced.

We all know people who have maxed out the inbox capability and have literally thousands of e-mails to chew through. These people are drowning in a sea of time wasters just like a young adult with 20 credit cards is drowning in a sea of debt. It is inevitable.

Complaining takes time

You know at least a few people in your circle of friends or working comrades who spend a hefty chunk of their day going around lamenting how there is not enough time to do the work. Admit it – we all do this to some extent.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Looks like I have plenty of time and not much to do?” OK, old geezers in the home have this problem and so do young children who are dependent on mommy to think up things to keep them occupied.

For most of us in the adult or working world, our time is the most scarce and precious commodity we have, yet we habitually squander it in tiny ways that add up to major stress for us. I suspect that even the most proficient time-management guru finds it possible to waste over 30% of his or her time on things that could be avoided.

Stop Doing List

One healthy antidote, especially at work, is to have a “stop doing” list. Most people have a “to do” list, but you rarely see someone adding things to a “don’t do” list.
Think how liberating and refreshing it would be if each of us found an extra hour or two each day by just consciously deciding to stop doing things that do not matter.

Whole groups can do this exercise and gain incredible productivity. The technique is called “work out,” where groups consciously redesign processes to take work out of the system. If you examine how you use your time today, I guarantee that if you are brutally honest you can find at least 2 hours of time you are wasting on busy work with no real purpose. Wow, two hours would be a gift for anyone.

Shift your mindset

Another technique is to really load up your schedule. You think that you are overworked now, but just imagine if you added 5 major new activities that had to be done on top of your present activities. That would feel insane, but you would find ways to cope. Then if you cut back to your current load next week, what seemed like an untenable burden a few weeks ago would feel like a cake walk.

I can recall a time in the Fall of 2004 when I was teaching 11 different collegiate courses at the same time. That was in addition to writing a book, chairing a volunteer Board, and managing a leadership consulting practice. I will admit that was a little over the top, but I sure enjoyed the load when I intentionally cut it back to only three courses at a time.

Conflict eats time

Another huge time burner is conflict. We spend more time than we realize trying to manage others, so our world is as close to what we want as possible. When things are out of kilter, we can spend hours of time on the phone or e-mail negotiating with others in a political struggle to get them to think more like us.

The typical thought pattern going through the mind during these times is “why can’t you be more like me.” The energy and time to have these discussions can really eat up the clock time during the day.

Dithering

Dither is another issue for many of us. I already shared that while I am writing this paper, I am really procrastinating from opening up and dealing with the 4 notes in my inbox (oops – now 5). I typically get around 100 e-mails a day.

There are other things I must do today, but I am having fun writing this paper, so the “work” is getting pushed back. I will pay for this indulgence later, but at least I do recognize what I am doing here.

The point is that most of the time we lose is unconscious. We have all figured out how to justify the time wasters in our lives, and we still complain that there are not enough hours in the day.

The cure for this malaise lies in having a different mindset. The time challenge is really part of the human condition. I think it helps to remind ourselves that when we feel overloaded, particularly with work, it is really just a priority issue, and we honestly do have time to do everything with still some slack time to take a breath. If you do not agree, then I suspect you are in denial.

Now, I need to be excused to go clean out my inbox!

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


Successful Supervisor Part 12 – Your Listening Hat

February 5, 2017

I once had a manager who was highly analytical. He was a whiz with numbers and data, but he had a weakness when it came to fully hearing people when they were talking to him.

I think it was because his brain was capable of thinking at about 10 times the rate that people were able to talk, so there was a lot of available time for him to multitask while he was “listening” to people.

I found it kind of frustrating for a while, but I found a way to vastly improve his ability to absorb what I needed him to hear.

Most of the time, the communication between us was like normal banter, and he could pick up the majority of my messages anyway through observing my body language. I will write about this skill in a future article.

However, sometimes I would have a really important point that I needed him to absorb fully. I would stop talking for a few moments (silence has a way of grabbing a listener’s attention) then I would say, “Now Mark, I need you to put on your ‘Listening Hat’ for the next 30 seconds.” He would nod and give me his full attention while I communicated the important message.

I have studied the quality-of-life surveys of hundreds of companies over the past couple decades. It is part of my contracting process when I do leadership consulting in an organization. Invariably the number one or number two complaint that people in the organization have is poor communication. It is always there near the top of employee concerns.

Of all the communication skills human beings have, we are weakest at listening. The reason is simple; we can process information so much faster than people can talk, so we use the extra processing time to figure out what we are going to say next.

In fact, the majority of our mental capacity while we are ostensibly listening is really focused on getting ready to speak. Therefore, we miss some details that the other person is trying to communicate.

Oh we get the gist of the information and easily make assumptions about the details. These assumptions are sometimes off base, so we get a distorted view of what the communication was all about.

The crime is that we all feel like we have listened well and have absorbed the full detail of what was being sent our way. This is the most significant cause of miscommunication between people, and we are all guilty of doing it.

Probably the best listeners on the planet are people who are mentally or physically challenged so that they are forced to concentrate on what is being said to them to the exclusion of all outside thoughts or distractions. How ironic that people who are severely challenged actually listen better than the rest of us who have our full faculties.

Is there no way out of this conundrum? Thankfully there is. We can all put on an imaginary “Listening Hat” during certain critical conversations, and that practice will allow us to absorb the maximum data when it really counts the most.

The hat is simply a mental image or screening device that allows us to pay “normal listening attention” to most conversations but significantly deepen our listening when it is important. The obvious question is how do we know when it is important?

For a small fraction of the conversations we have in a day, we are dealing with a person who is in a state of high emotion. It may be anything from elation, after he won the lottery, to grief at the loss of his brother. It may be pride at being the first person in the class to solve a complex equation or rage after someone broke into his car.

Whenever the other person is having a peak emotional experience, it is a trigger point to put on your “Listening Hat.” The reason this is important is because you cannot sustain the kind of energy required to listen with maximum intensity all the time.

We know that the human body is capable of performing at amazing levels during an emergency due to the release of adrenaline. That is why a person arriving on the scene of a car that rolled onto a person has the capacity to actually lift the car while others pull out the victim.

Under normal circumstances the hero would never be able to lift a car, yet with enough adrenaline, he was able to do it. If you injected that much adrenalin in his blood stream all day long, he would soon die because the human body is just not capable of surviving that level of stimulation.

Once we know it is time to put on our “Listening Hat,” how do we physically ramp up our ability to listen effectively? We need to go into a much deeper level of listening using three steps as follows:

1. Following or attending the conversation

This means the listener is not multitasking by looking at his cell phone, fiddling with his shoelace, typing a text, or cleaning his nails. Rather he is making good eye contact and showing visible signs of actually hearing the other person. But hearing is not just listening well, so we need to do more.

2. Listening at a deeper level

This means absorbing the information with enough intensity to block out all mental or physical distractions. It means actually thinking about the content and how it fits into the context of the entire message while paying attention to the body language, especially the facial expressions that signal emotions.

In this step you actually visualize every part of the message with enough clarity to perform the third step.

3. Engage in some conversation that indicates your understanding

Think about the content and phrase a question or comment that comes from the heart while showing respect. Here are some ideas of what types of responses might be appropriate depending on the conversation:

o Clarify what the other person wants me to know

o Help me understand the underlying feelings of the other person

o Probe for any potential hidden meanings that may not have been expressed yet

o Make sure we have covered the full breadth of the issue

o Get to the heart of the matter

o Move the conversation forward in a productive way

o Help the person move beyond the venting stage

Doing these three steps will ensure you have listened at a much deeper level than you normally do, and it verifies you understood the other person well enough to verbalize his or her points accurately.

You don’t need to go to this extent of heightened listening all the time, because that level of effort would not be possible in every conversation, but for the few really important conversations, the extra effort pays off in better understanding.

Some precautions or flavoring

There are some precautions when using this technique. Do not be too quick to interject comments or questions of your own. Often if you just pause and listen to the silence for a second or two, the other person will open up more and get deeper into the issues.

If you interrupt the flow too much, it can be annoying to the other person. You can tell if this happens by watching the body language carefully.

Try to avoid just parroting back the information given by the other person. This technique, often called “reflective listening,” can seem phony or clumsy to the other person if overdone and defeat the entire purpose of your deep listening.

Don’t try to assume how a person may be feeling.

The ability to focus on the true message is critical to understanding what people are trying to convey. Supervisors often operate in a noisy area, such as a shop floor, with numerous visual or auditory distractions.

It may be advantageous to get to a less noisy area for serious conversations, but be alert that some people will clam up if brought into an office area. Make sure the other person feels safe in every way when sharing feelings with you.

The whole idea is to fully understand rather than just hear the other person. You cannot possibly build trust with people if you do not understand what they are trying to convey to you.

For supervisors and other leaders, the art of deep listening significantly improves your effectiveness, because you are getting the full message when things are not working correctly.

It takes practice to master listening skills. The more you practice the more second nature it becomes, and your ability to understand others will be significantly enhanced.

The major technique here is to remember to put on your “Listening Hat” when someone in an emotional state wants to talk to you.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763