The Breaking Point
By Bruna Martinuzzi
How much will it take before you snap?
A few years ago, at the height of the technology
boom, I spoke with a talented young software engineer who had
been fast tracked into a management position. In a very short
period of time, he went from being a self-fulfilled, highly competent
and respected, individual producer to being a stressed
out leader, no longer enjoying his job. He confided that he had
felt obliged to accept the promotion but had done so reluctantly.
He soon found that he did not enjoy having to confront chronic
under-performers, didn't know how to motivate them or hold them
accountable, and was bewildered by the multiplicity of
people-related issues that consumed large parts of his day. His
training had equipped him to develop algorithms not people. Highly
stressed, he was no longer "in the flow", doing what he loved
best: Writing software.
Knowing that the skills we have are adequate for the job is one of
the requirements for being in the flow, that marvelous
state of consciousness described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
Professor of Psychology and Management at the Drucker and Ito
Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. In
his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,
Csikszentmihalyi explains "flow", or "being in the zone", as a
state of consciousness where we are so absorbed by what we are
doing that we don't even notice the passage of time – hours feel
like minutes. I liken it to those times when we are so enthralled
in a project or a task, so engaged, that we forget to eat.
For flow to occur, we need to have a balance between our skills
and the high challenges we are tasked with. When the challenge is
high, yet the skill set for the challenge is low, we are in a
state of anxiety. If this condition persists for prolonged periods
of time, without relief, we enter a cycle of stress which could
lead to burnout.
Another form of stress that we are often reminded about is the
stress caused by "technology overload" – excessive e-mail, cell
phones, text messaging, Blackberries and now blogs – all of which
end up creating a loss of focus and affecting productivity. Our
modern day angst of not being able to get it all done leads us to
a multitasking frenzy. A recent Time Magazine article explores the
issue of multitasking and concludes that frantic multitasking
actually deludes us into thinking that we are getting a lot done,
while in reality we end up getting less done and the work quality
suffers. This is particularly interesting: "When a New York Times reporter interviewed several recent winners of McArthur 'genius'
grants, a striking number said they kept cell phones and iPods off
or away when in transit so that they could use the downtime for
A catch-all phrase for multitasking, continuous technology
interruptions and the information overload that we are bombarded
with daily is "cognitive overload". Leaders are particularly
vulnerable to cognitive overload as they are typically required to
consider a lot more information than the rest of us.
Interestingly, in an article by Dr Howard Gardner, The
Synthesizing Leader, which appeared in The HBR List: Breakthrough
Ideas for 2006, we learn that the single most important trait of
future leaders in the developed world is the ability to synthesize
information. Synthesizing which information to consider entails,
among other things, developing standards for selection, such as
source credibility and relevance. It also involves asking
questions such as "Does this information form a coherent story?"
and "Do these trends make sense?" In our data-rich world,
selecting which pieces of information are worthy of our ever
shrinking attention span is a key competency for reducing stress
and, ultimately, being more effective as a leader.
Besides learning to effectively synthesize information, what can
we do to help ourselves and our constituents to minimize stress?
Here are some strategies to consider:
- Actively develop new leaders' leadership skills
Make sure that your newly-minted leaders have the appropriate
tools needed for their people management responsibilities –
this is a key requirement to helping them succeed and minimize
stress. This includes mentoring, providing a relevant leadership
skills assessment to uncover strengths and areas for development,
assisting in the creation of a learning action plan and providing
leadership training/or and coaching. It also means providing
ongoing support and feedback.
- Manage new leaders' performance pro-actively and avoid
Create conditions that allow all your team to be in "the flow"
while they achieve results – it is another way of reducing workplace-induced
malaise and helping them to perform successfully. In addition
to ensuring that individuals have the skills adequate for the
job, this also entails setting and communicating clear goals
and expectations and providing immediate feedback on how well
a person is performing – helping employees understand the effect
of their efforts. This means not waiting until the annual review
to have a discussion of the employees' performance and confronting
them with a laundry list of "improvements". It is also worth
mentioning that keeping individuals in positions where their
skills far exceeds the challenge is also stressful, and ends
up taking its toll. Wherever possible, design jobs that take
full advantage of their constituents' talents and that continually
raise the bar.
- Reduce stress through commitment, control and challenge
Not everyone, of course, is subject to stress: Some individuals
have very strong resilience and are not only better able to
cope with stress but they also thrive on stress. These are people
who do not overreact, they don't let external events derail
them, they continue to keep their eye on the ball and maintain
mental resilience, no matter what goes on around them. While
everyone else is stuck on the problems, they focus on solutions
and have a one track mind: Moving forward. They don't waste
time worrying about what they can't change and focus only on
their locus of control. Contrast this with the individual who
is crushed in the face of adversity, who wastes time being consumed
by the "wrongs" committed, who burns bridges and possibly never
recovers from the situation. We admire the "resilient" group.
What can we learn from these people to help us cope with the
stress of adversity in the workplace? The answer is provided
by Dr Susan Kobasa and Dr Salvatore Maddi who studied employees
undergoing a major restructuring at Illinois Bell Telephone
in the 1980s. Their findings are outlined in The Hardy Executive:
Health Under Stress, where we learn of the personality traits
of stress hardy people, namely, commitment, (being committed
to something that is meaningful, for example work, community,
family; staying engaged and involved in ongoing events, even
in the most trying of circumstances, rather than feeling isolated); control (believing in our ability, through our efforts,
to turn events to our advantage rather than adopting a passive
and powerless victim mode) and challenge (viewing change,
whether positive or negative, as an opportunity to learn rather
than as a threat). We can all benefit from these pointers in
times of stress.
- Create a "Stop Doing" List
A concept, borrowed from Jim Colllins' Good to Great: Why
Some Companies Make the Leap.and Others Don't that is useful
in minimizing stress and achieving clarity of focus is creating
a "Stop Doing List". Those who built companies that went from
good to great "displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all
sorts of extraneous junk". We all have "To Do Lists" but how
many of us have created a list to isolate and halt pursuits
that don't serve us well any longer? Can you benefit from creating
a Stop Doing List? What are your energy drainers? Are these
among some of the offenders that may cause you stress: Internalizing
others' criticism, fragmented boundaries, power struggles, unprotected
personal time, useless networking, continuous one-way favors?
What can you do to address these and other drainers? What can
you eliminate to make room for what energizes you and brings
you closer to achieving your goals?
- Focus on your strengths
Along those same lines, if business strategy is a cause of stress,
consider reading this focused, well-researched and insightful
book: Profit from the Core: Growth Strategy in an Era of
Turbulence by Chris Zook and James Allen. The book reaffirms the
timeless tenet that focusing on your core business – that which
you do best – is the most efficient way to bring about long-term
growth and profit. By refocusing on what you do best, the authors
advise, it will also be easier to spot inefficiencies that drain
your business. The concept transcends business, though: If we
don't narrow down our activities to a fundamental core from which
we can grow, a strategy becomes much harder to develop.
- Avoid fighting battles you don't need to win
Pick your battles wisely. How often have we heard this? Yet, in
the heat of the moment, do we stop for a second and think: Is this
truly worth fighting for? Are you even likely to win? An example
of such a no-win battle which can easily occur in the workplace is
fighting the power behind the throne: That is, entering into a
contest of wills with a person who has no apparent authority but
who has great influence. This individual is very adept at working
behind the scenes and you can easily find yourself unwittingly on
thin ice, wasting your valuable, non-renewable energy. Long ago I
came across a statement which said: Maturity is being content to
know that you are right without having to prove someone else
wrong. How much stress we could eliminate if we were guided by
such a philosophy – if we decided to devote each day only to that
which is worthy of our attention – our personal achievements and
our organization's achievements?
- Focus on your priorities
Minimizing stress also means looking at our life through a
holistic lens: Addressing our needs in each area, whether it is
physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological or social. What
are some daily practices that you can introduce to create reserves
in each of these important areas of your life? Reserves help us
when we feel depleted from the day's stressors. If you need
inspiration in this area, consider reading Dr John C. Maxwell, Today Matters: 12 Daily Practices to Guarantee Tomorrow's Success.
Maxwell provides 12 practical guidelines such as practicing and
developing good thinking to gain an advantage, practicing
commitment to gain tenacity, pursuing growth to give us potential
and developing priorities to give us focus. On the latter, is
reading and responding to pointless e-mails the first thing you do
when you start the day? What about reversing the order? Focusing
first on projects that will give you the highest returns for
yourself and your organization? Imagine the benefits of
establishing this simple initiative as a daily practice. The book
is a reminder that "we choose our life by how we spend time" –
people who achieve their potential act on their priorities every
- Consider promotion outside of management
Finally, it is worth mentioning that that there is another form of
less advertised stress: that of the unwelcome promotion. While
everyone can be trained to be a leader, the truth is, not everyone
enjoys leading others. We can derive an inspiration from 3M, a
company which provides their technical people with parallel dual
career paths, known as the "dual ladder" system. This means that
individuals can still progress in their careers in terms of
compensation and other manifestations of advancement without
having to enter the management ranks. For example, this approach
honors those who excel without forcing them to stray from their
natural R & D habitat. Some individuals targeted for a management
promotion may be too reluctant to voice their apprehension for
fear of making a less than favorable impression. Management needs
to be open to this possibility and make it safe for their talented
individuals to march to the beat of a different drum.
The software engineer who was catapulted into
a leadership position went on to take on more people management
responsibilities during the downsizing that took place after the
end of the technology boom. He almost reached his breaking point
and eventually moved on to another company where he joined the
rank and file, and is happily focusing on writing software again.
He has come to terms with his personal definition of success:
Do what you enjoy! As Jack Nicklaus once said, "It's difficult
to excel at something you don't truly enjoy".
Copyright © 2007 Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.
This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Click here to contact her or visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com. Click here for other articles by Bruna.
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