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.


Short Staffing

March 15, 2014

two doctors discussingA student in one of my MBA classes made a remarkable statement the other day. She wrote, “Short staff think only inside the box.” The unusual wording made an impact, and I decided to write on the concept.

Of course, she was not referring to people of lesser stature. She was commenting on the habitual practice of numerous organizations to run so thin on staffing that they compromise the viability of the business.

Knowing the “correct” level of staff is a tricky business for sure. I have done consulting for organizations where the employees are screaming that they are totally overloaded. Later on, working with these same groups, people would grumble about how most people are not pulling their fair share of the load.

In truth, most organizations get only a small fraction of the discretionary effort inherent in the workforce. My own unscientific estimate is that a typical organization these days manages to extract only about 30% of the capability of their workforce.

Some leaders use the amount of screaming for more resources as a guide to hiring. If the whining is not there, they figure the organization is running too fat.

If people are complaining but toughing it out, they conclude things are about right. If people are becoming ill and if turnover is sky high, they grudgingly agree to put on a couple more people.

Gauging the level of staff based on the complaint level is dangerous on both extremes.

If things get so thin for an extended period, the best people will just leave. If you wait until people whine to hire anyone, then you are probably running a Country Club.

Back to my student’s comment on the impact that running thin has on creativity. I thought her observation was spot on.

You can observe overworked people in numerous venues. According to many students, one typical place to see the stress is in nursing.

According to the Gallup Organization, the nursing occupation is the highest trusted occupation category of all every year since they have been measuring trust in organizations. Yet, nurses are normally so stacked up with critical tasks that they don’t find time to eat let alone try to figure out creative solutions to problems.

I am only singling out nurses because it is easy to observe this situation, in reality the problem occurs in numerous types of jobs.

In an effort to improve productivity, leaders stretch their resources like a rubber band. The problem is that if you do that, eventually you will exceed the elastic limit of the rubber, and it will permanently deform or just snap.

In those conditions, people are going to do the requirements as best they can and not be very engaged in improving the conditions. They become case hardened and bitter.

When people feel abused, they go into a survival mode, which severely limits productivity, so the managers get exactly what they deserve. It becomes a vicious circle.

The antidote is to work on changing the culture so that the current workforce is producing at a multiple of their prior productivity instead of just a tiny percentage higher than the prior year.

That means working on trust rather than forcing existing people to work in a constant state of overload.

It means investing in the resources you have, and maybe even adding some, rather than continually cutting back in an effort to survive. You may survive in the short term, but your long term prognosis is terminal.

When I suggest to leaders that they need to invest in their culture, I often get an incredulous or outraged look in return. “How can we possibly afford to work on our culture when everybody is already at the limit of their capability?”

Well, you cannot unless you change your attitude about how people work. If you would try the alternate path, it would quickly become apparent that the road to long term health and even survival is to have the right level of resources so that you can invest in the culture.