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.

Improving E-mail: Avoid the Quicksand

February 12, 2012

Sometimes e-mail feels like steroids for communication; other times it feels more like quicksand. A key problem is trying to figure out which notes among the hundreds received each day must be opened and read. This article describes an idea that will accelerate the flow of notes through your inbox and other tips to make your e-mail sparkle. It will help you write notes that people actually read.

One of my students relayed a method used by a Major General in the Air Force to help organize the inbox clutter. The idea is to establish a kind of code that goes upfront on the subject line of all e-mails within a unit. No, I am not talking about the famous military acronyms. These code words are so simple that everyone knows what they mean. Here are the prefaces the senior officer required on each note in his unit:


If an entire unit took up this convention, it would be possible to set up files for the incoming e-mails to go directly to one of the above categories and not sit in the main inbox of notes. This would allow an individual to go directly to the ACTION folder if time was short, or browse the INFORM folder when a more leisurely pace was possible.

It would still be possible to mark certain notes as “urgent” so that method of giving priority is still available as well. One caution on the use of “urgent” is to not abuse the designation. When an individual uses “urgent” as a means to give routine requests higher priority, it defeats the purpose and labels the abuser as a poor online communicator.

Another tip for the subject line is to actually compress the entire e-mail message onto the subject, then type EOM (End Of Message) at the end. The subject would look like this: “Meeting for Tuesday at 10 am cancelled: EOM.” This saves readers the time to open the note, and they still get the essential information. Clearly not all e-mail messages can fit into a subject line, but if 10% of them actually could, why not use this time-saving technique?

There are many methods of managing the inbox for optimal efficiency. It is a matter of personal choice what works for you. One habit that works for me is to try to get the inbox down to zero notes at least once a day. I am not always successful at getting to zero, but roughly half of my days I can see an empty inbox. I rarely let the inbox get to more than one page long, so all of the notes waiting for my attention can be viewed in one frame. That practice gives me the ability to have very rapid turnaround time on all incoming requests. It is a good way of building higher trust online. I receive over 150 notes on an average day, so having an uncluttered inbox saves a lot of search time.

When writing notes, make most of them short enough to fit entirely on one display pane. The reason is psychological. When the reader opens the note, he or she will see at a glance that the note ends right there in the first pane, because the signature block will be visible at the bottom of the screen. That puts the reader in a happy place regarding how much time will be required to read the note. This realization will go a long way toward having the reader pay attention and absorb the meaning.

If a note goes beyond the first pane (I call it “over the horizon”), then the reader is in a more grumpy mood while diving into the content. Psychologically, he or she is distracted by wondering how long the note really is and pays less attention to the content. The person may not even tackle the note and put it back in the inbox to read later, if at all.

These tips are easy to accomplish, if people are trained to use them and the expectation is made clear. Your work environment will be significantly more efficient and you will stay out of e-mail quicksand if you use these ideas every day and teach them to others.