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Pursuing a Sustainable Pace: Moving Beyond Chronic Overwhelm

overwhelm Feb 23, 2022

I remember that season of leadership where “crisis” came in waves from multiple fronts. I learned that I can lead well in those moments by recognizing that competing priorities need to be sorted, quick decisions need to be made, and definitive actions taken. Yet, repeating that experience too many times began to shape my leadership style into one of “setting the table for crisis” so I would be ready just in case. 

Soon, I began to wonder if I was inviting “crisis” instead of recognizing the situation for what it is. Not everything needs to become a crisis to create forward momentum. With effort I stopped seeing everything as a potential crisis and instead pursued an approach and a pace that was more sustainable for me and for those around me.

Chronic overwhelm works the same way when things are coming from multiple angles and you’re perpetually juggling yet another thing that seems urgent. It becomes the default way of leading and working that could result in not being able to see another way to get work done.

If you want to find another way, then it’s about leading yourself and others down a path characterized by a sustainable pace. Let’s follow the path!

Diagnosing Chronic Overwhelm

Start observing each person on your team.  What signs are you noticing of chronic overwhelm for those on the team? Do you see anyone on your team … 

  • Experiencing health symptoms – a flare up, symptoms of stress, increase in sick leave 
  • Losing focus and haphazardly working on tasks striving to get through an endless list
  • Displaying emotions that are easily triggered and maybe out of proportion to the situation
  • Always on the move, late for meetings, double booking or constantly juggling calendars
  • Finding it difficult to say “no” to certain things and regretting it later

Add to this list other things you observe as evidence of chronic overwhelm. In particular, notice specific symptoms that overwhelm is sticking around and not going anywhere. 

Starting the Conversation about Overwhelm

Recently, I offered a quick poll for leaders on what strategy works to help their people manage overwhelm — a) talk about it (personalize it), b) offer specific guidelines for work/life balance or c) model work/life balance as a leader. Guess which one was #1 amongst this list? a) Talk about it.

So, have a conversation. Share your observations and ask a few questions to help your people make observations of their own. Questions you can ask include …

  • Where are you feeling the most pressure in your life right now?
  • What contributes to that pressure for you?
  • What challenges does that create for you in your role?
  • What would you like to see be different?

These questions aren’t intended to solve the chronic overwhelm, just better understand it. It’s easy to make assumptions about the source and impact of overwhelm especially when it gets “chronic”, so the first conversation is intended to “seek to understand”.

Moving Beyond the Overwhelm

Once you have some mutual understanding, as a leader you can become a facilitator of solutions rather than giving advice on how to “fix it”. Ask more questions to co-create strategies for how they might achieve a more manageable situation. It might require multiple conversations with time to think and process in between, especially if it’s been overwhelming for a while.

Change is certainly hard to sustain. That’s why it can be helpful to co-create these strategies and then check in along the way as they implement them. Choose a reflection question you can use to pause and ask each other when the symptoms of overwhelm surface again. Keep the conversation going by repeating the same three stages regularly: Observe, Discuss and Move Beyond the Overwhelm. 

Next Steps

You’re busy, too. Maybe even living on the edge of overwhelm. So, you might just have to stop and diagnose yourself first. Talk to someone about your own overwhelm and set some strategies in place to move beyond perpetual overwhelm. 

Starting by leading yourself in this area is necessary to have credibility with your people. They won’t listen to you about living at a manageable pace if they don’t see you doing it. Start with yourself… then move toward your people. When it comes to your team … 

  1. Pause and observe the symptoms of overwhelm. Who on your team might be in “critical condition”? What are the ongoing patterns of overwhelm that you see?
  2. Start with your most overwhelmed teammate. Plan out how you want to frame the conversation by sharing your observations. Select a few questions to take it deeper. Think about how you want to convey your empathy rather than normalizing an overwhelming culture.
  3. Help them find solutions that work for them. Keep the ball in their court rather than picking it up and trying to solve their problem(s). Solutions to overwhelm are more sustainable if they are co-created and resourced from the inside out.

Moving beyond the overwhelm is a leadership development strategy and we will be talking in the next blog series about the ways leaders can customize their approach to help their team grow and thrive based on their unique personalities. If a quick strategy session will help you design the conversation you need to have and questions you can ask, then sign up for a free 27 minute strategy session and let’s talk. 

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