Are you constantly tired, irritable and/or stressed?
Executive overwhelm manifests itself in myriad ways, from emotional volatility to an inability to concentrate or listen, difficulty making decisions, numbness or withdrawal from other people and activities, and even physical conditions — headaches, back pain, digestive issues, fatigue or insomnia.
The demands on our limited resources — think time, money and energy, to name the top three — are very real. But overwhelm isn’t driven by an external event or situation; it’s actually caused by a conversation that takes place in our minds.
Why do leaders feel overwhelmed at work?
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.
Following are several common contributors to executive overwhelm:
- “It’s lonely at the top”— 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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 — 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.
9 Strategies to Conquer Leadership Overwhelm
Recognizing the signs of overwhelm is progress in and of itself because it puts you on the path to progress. Developing an awareness of the internal dialogue that contributes to feeling overwhelmed is the first step in reversing the spiral.
These 9 strategies can help keep prevent — and even defeat — 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. 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.
Related: Do You Live to Work or Work to Live?
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.
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 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.
Looking to dramatically reduce your stress and increase your energy? Tactical strategies fall short. Our Accountability Mirror™ and MindMastery™ workshop programs dig below the surface to help you explore the ways you might be standing in your own way.
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