Natalie was clearly frustrated. As a senior vice president of marketing at one of the nation’s largest consulting firms, she was torn by the ever-increasing demands at work — and at home. Her thoughts dogged her as she convinced herself that she was unable to lead with the impact she once considered a great source of pride.
Constantly tired, and admittedly more irritable than she had ever been before, she knew that she needed help. “I’m just overwhelmed,” she said at our first meeting.
While Natalie is a fictitious name, her story is one we hear over and over, says Jody Michael, CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates.
“Overwhelm isn’t driven by an external event or situation,” she says. “It’s actually caused by a conversation that takes place in our minds.”
Ten executives can sit in the same meeting, hearing the same facts presented by the same person. Seven of those leaders might feel completely overwhelmed, while the other three are virtually unfazed. Why?
“The difference lies in their respective perspectives. The seven people who feel overwhelmed are having a different internal dialogue than the three who are taking it in stride,” Jody explains.
“Developing an awareness of these ‘conversations’ is the first step in reframing the thoughts that contribute to feeling overwhelmed.”
IT’S LONELY AT THE TOP — BUT IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE
As the go-to person for your team or company, you’re often the one responsible for having the answers. But what happens when you’re the one with the questions?
Many of our executive coaching clients express a sense of “aloneness” in their leadership role. As a leader, you may hesitate to ask for guidance because of an internalized expectation to appear competent — to a superlative degree. That pressure (real or perceived) can exacerbate leadership overwhelm.
“Executives tend to be private about their perceived inadequacies,” according to executive coach Nancy Scheel, who runs Jody Michael Associates’ Atlanta office. “When you can wrap your head around the fact that you’re a human being first, and a leader second, you allow yourself space to grow and develop.”
Vulnerability does not equal weakness; in fact, cultivating authentic connections with trusted confidantes is one of the greatest drivers of effective leadership. Finding these connections doesn’t happen overnight, Nancy says. “You have to be intentional and build these relationships step by step, over time, testing the waters with each other.
“Getting the right coach can be a short-term solution so that you have someone to talk with right away, while you then have the necessary time and support to develop mutual relationships among your peers.”
Why do leaders feel overwhelmed at work?
- Lack of authenticity — Executives often feel like they can’t be themselves. Many leaders say that they are forced to portray a certain image, ‘fit a mold’ or engage in corporate politics. “Having to carefully calculate what you say, how you say it and to whom you say it can become draining,” Jody points out.
- Fear — Because leaders tend to hide their fears, it’s easy to assume they don’t exist. But they do. From the Impostor Syndrome to a fear of change, fear of failing or fear of upsetting others, leaders often experience apprehension (even anxiety) caused by a variety of internal and external factors.
- Challenging personalities — Being kept out of the power loop, lacking the information that can help drive performance or make better decisions, puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Jody says, “Whether it’s your boss or an individual on your team, having to work with someone who is passive-aggressive, who blocks your input or who sabotages your efforts can leave you feeling overwhelmed.”
- Exhaustion — Being in a leadership role often means carrying the weight of your team or company — in addition to your own. Fatigue is greater than the sum of its parts; if you’re physically tired and mentally drained, it can be downright grueling. Exhaustion can render even the “strongest” leader unable to cope with the slightest challenges, make prudent decisions or inspire employees. It is not only a quick route to feeling overwhelmed at work, but also at home.
- Accountability — Nancy points out that leaders are often stressed to the point of overwhelm because of a lack of accountability either in their peer executives or in the direct reports of the executive team. If your team members aren’t carrying out their responsibilities, it can add a layer of pressure. It can become even harder if the company isn’t willing to carry out the consequences — i.e., fire non-performing employees.
SIX SIGNS OF LEADERSHIP OVERWHELM
Feeling overwhelmed? These leadership “red flags” are worth noting:
- Emotional volatility
- Inability to concentrate or listen
- Difficulty making decisions
- Numbness or withdrawal — from other people and activities
- Physical conditions — headaches, back pain, digestive issues, fatigue, insomnia
“Recognizing the signs of overwhelm is progress in and of itself because it puts you on the path to make changes,” Nancy says.
“The most important first step in conquering executive overwhelm is to calm your nervous system.” While there are some in-the-moment ways to do this, Nancy recommends adopting strategic daily practices to allow your mind and body to heal — and to prevent leadership burnout. (For specific examples of strategic daily practices, see Stress Management for Leaders sidebar, below.)
9 strategies to conquer leadership overwhelm
1. Build resilience — One of the greatest threats to your leadership capability is your mindset. How do you respond when things don’t go as planned? Managing the thoughts that create your moods dramatically increases your ability to lead with intention. “Resilient leaders have greater agility; they can move faster and more strategically,” Jody says. “They are energetically equipped with the capacity to handle difficult situations and events that may be perceived as ‘difficult’ by others.”
2. Develop trust — Do you have a team in place that could take over if you had to take an unexpected leave? Do they understand your brand, vision and objectives? If your employees lack accountability, you’re likely carrying an unfair share of the company’s burden. Take corrective action by putting the right people on your team and conveying clear expectations.
3. Improve work-life balance — Many leaders express frustration over wanting to do it all — giving 100 percent to both their professional and personal lives. Mathematically, that’s not possible. Striking the right work-life balance varies from one person to another, but before you can attempt to achieve it, you need to clearly identify your values and priorities. What matters most to you? Allocating your limited resources (such as time, energy, money) accordingly will help you create — and maintain — work-life balance.
4. Monotask — A laser focus gives you an edge, in life and in leadership. But when you’re being pulled (or pulling yourself) in too many directions, you dilute that focus. Moreover, multitasking has cognitive consequences, especially over time. As the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass found in his research, chronic multitasking actually rewires the brain, evidenced by MRI imaging. People who constantly multitask are actually worse at it than those who occasionally multitask, according to his studies. Multitaskers were found to have difficulty not only paying attention, but also managing their working memory. By forcing yourself to pay attention to one thing at a time, you allow yourself to become immersed in it.
5. Manage stress — Stress is the physiological reaction to a perceived threat. From the “threat” of running late for a meeting to the threat of looming budget cuts, leaders are bombarded with workplace stress. Contributing factors run the gamut, from insufficient resources to deadlines, employee conflict and external pressures — including the demands of home and family life. (For ideas on how to keep stress at bay, see Stress Management for Leaders, sidebar.)
6. Become more proactive — Leaders often feel overwhelmed because so much of their energy is spent reacting to crises. Taking a proactive stance shifts control back into your court, allowing you to weigh risk versus reward and make more intentional decisions. Instead of feeling like the proverbial wheel-spinning hamster, thinking and planning ahead paves the way for increased productivity and a feeling of mastery.
7. Attend to important matters — When you’re in a leadership role, you can’t ignore matters marked by urgency. From missed deadlines to employee disputes, many challenges crop up throughout the day, adding to your already overflowing cup of responsibility. However, it’s essential to recognize “urgent” versus “important,” prioritizing accordingly.
8. Maintain emotional boundaries — Executives are often viewed — by employees or upper management — as the scapegoat for company problems, even if that blame is completely unfounded. Taking things personally can be a quick route to feeling overwhelmed. Leaders who over-empathize are also easily drained because they carry the weight of other people’s problems. Achieving a “just-right” emotional balance allows you to lead with greater finesse.
9. Seek support — In our executive coaching practice, we find that many leaders crave opportunities to hone their leadership skills, but few actively seek it out — until an external event pushes them into action. A 2013 survey conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business found that nearly 66 percent of the 200 CEOs surveyed don’t receive any type of external coaching or leadership advice, but 100 percent would be open to making changes based on feedback. Wherever the source, support is essential to keeping overwhelm — and burnout — at bay.
STRESS MANAGEMENT FOR LEADERS
While no one is immune to stress, leaders are particularly prone to it. The following strategies can help you manage your stress before it turns into executive overwhelm:
- Get outside
- Practice mindfulness
- Get plenty of quality sleep
- Cultivate mutually supportive relationships
- De-clutter your environment