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.


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.

Competition Friend or Foe

July 12, 2012

Is competition between individuals or teams at work good or bad? The answer is “yes.” When taken to extremes, it is easy to see that cut-throat competition where one group works to succeed at the expense of another group will lead to poor performance or even sabotage. If you doubt that, just start watching The Apprentice on TV. I have not watched it in a few years, but it used to be based on taking 1000 bright business students and creating 999 losers and one winner.

On the other extreme, we know that pit crews are amazingly competitive in a good way. They will work for days to shave a few tenths of a second on a pit stop. They are seeking perfection, and the friendly competition between teams creates an atmosphere that breeds excellence.

How can you know if you are creating the kind of competition that is healthy? Here are some signs that you have crossed the line from useful competition to the detrimental variety.

1. Teams plan activities that advantage their group but disadvantage another group.

2. People manipulate numbers in order to win out over the competition.

3. People try to raid personnel from a different team.

4. Gossip or rumors about another team take on a hurtful tone.

5. The formation of cliques becomes an egregious activity.

6. Team celebrations become disruptive or dangerous.

7. Teams fail to share resources that were intended to be used by multiple teams.

8. Teams demonstrate a lack of trust.

9. Team members refuse to be cross trained.

10. Teams hold information back or become secretive on some issues.

Monitor your teams at work, and look for the signs of unhealthy competition. In general, some friendly competition is a good thing, but when it is carried to an extreme, really bad things can begin to happen. If the competition is fostering some of the symptoms above, here are seven remedies that can help.

1. Clarify the goals. Remind people in different groups that they are all part of a larger effort.

2. Reinforce people who demonstrate healthy competition, and counsel people who are on the other extreme.

3. Cross-pollinate members of the teams so it becomes harder to draw on historical loyalties.

4. Hold team building activities for the larger team and intermingle the groups to build chemistry.

5. Be sure stated goals do not encourage silo thinking by ensuring alignment with the larger organization.

6. Celebrate success of teams in the larger environment to create a winning culture.

7. Remove team members who exhibit poor attitudes toward other teams.

Many organizations use contests or other overt methods of encouraging team competition. These can be helpful or hurtful depending on how they are administered. Make sure the competition in your organization is enhancing overall performance rather than fostering bad blood between groups. Use the tips above to keep competition healthy.

Monsters Under the Bed

August 22, 2011

Even though I am a calcified boomer, I can still remember the fear of monsters under my bed. I was fearless when not conscious of a potential for danger, but as soon as my brother would suggest I look under the bed in case there were any monsters there, I would be up for the night. It is amazing how many noises there are in a house when your ears are poised to hear every sound. It can drive you nuts.

So it is in some work environments. As groups become fixated on the potential problems (internal or external), they lose the ability to be objective, and they enter a world of paranoia. A defensive posture emerges that can stifle creative progress.

On the flip side, organizations that play only offense can be blindsided easily by changing conditions brought on by the competition, changes in customer preference, or other external factors. The obvious place to be is a healthy balance where potential problems are anticipated, but the organization flexes its own muscle in an aggressive offensive strategy. Here are some ideas that can facilitate this balance.

Clarify Your Own Strategy

The companies that consistently win in the marketplace have a product and service pattern that perpetually leaves the competition in a “fast follower” position. Apple Inc. is an excellent example of a company that continually out-innovates the competition and thus enjoys the ability to shape the future marketplace. They do not always win (remember the Newton?), but their batting average is pretty high, and the number of “at bats” is incredible. The powerful combination of brilliant strategic moves and best-in-class product design capability creates an impressive stream of products. I suppose if you are a competitor of Apple, they are the monster under the bed.

Invest in Good Market Intelligence

The ability to “see around corners” is not based on clairvoyance. The roots of excellent anticipation are knowledge and keen instincts. Knowledge involves investing in a continual scan of what everyone else in the market is doing. Here are some examples of just a few of the numerous legitimate ways an organization can distill the essence of major moves by the competition:

• Monitor patent applications.
• Read the annual reports of the competition.
• Keep up with social networking chatter.
• Track the delivery of supplies to the competition.
• Note requests for local ordinance variations.
• Listen to the industry speculation.

Of course, many organizations play dirty and try to use eaves-dropping or other inappropriate methods to gather useful information. Illegal processes eventually give an organization the reputation for having ethical problems, which can directly affect market value. In addition, if employees are encouraged by management to use quasi-illegal tactics, it drains the moral fiber out of the organization, which leads to an ethical dry rot problem that eventually leads to collapse. In the internet age, few things can remain hidden for long.

Create Common Goals in Your Team

The ability to articulate a compelling vision of the future is an essential leadership trait. Once a vision is in place, it is time to enroll every soul in the organization behind it. When teams perform poorly due to conflict, usually it is a result of team members not sharing common goals. They think they are on the same page, but really they are subtly pulling in different directions. If the vision describes a better existence for all people in the organization and it is solidified by consistency from top management, then the common goal created will provide an incredible force for forward progress. I am reminded of the TV segment of a man pulling a giant 727 airplane. Concentrated, persistent force can move large objects.

Build Trust

Without trust on the team, all efforts to excel and avoid the monsters under the bed will produce tepid results. Reason: Low trust means the organization continually has to pay a tax on all interpersonal activities as described by Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust. When trust is high, it allows the organization to see the dangers clearly and still move forward with courage born of solidarity. Internal monsters have a hard time surviving in a culture of high trust because transparency shines a light of truth to reveal there is nothing under the bed but dust bunnies. The resulting absence of fear means a good night’s sleep is possible.

It is important to manage uncertainty with courage and an appropriate level of caution. If the underpinnings of an organization are solid, it can ride the wave of market changes like a surfer; if the foundation is not solid, the organization can be swept under the current of competitive pounding waves and struggle to survive.