Overwhelmed? Me too.
Are you overwhelmed? Perhaps you recently started a new business? Or, launched a business transformation to take advantage of shifting market trends? Or, working on big plans for a promotion? Now, this pandemic has thrown a wrench in your plans? You wonder if your business can survive? Or, you lost your job and are now trying to regroup? Is it just too much?
I get overwhelmed at times. Sometimes it’s because I’m listening to the noise around me (while I’m staying informed, I’ve stopped listening to the daily news). Other times, it’s because my own head is swimming in deep water (I can manufacture stress like a smokestack). But every time, it’s because I’ve lost my footing. When I get lost in the weeds and lose sight of the big picture … forget my priorities … give up control of my inputs … focus on the wrong activities … I create conditions ripe to become overwhelmed.
Not to minimize this crisis. It’s no joke. The impacts are real. Death-causing. Life-changing. Income-busting. Career-altering. Industry-shifting. I can’t think of a better word to describe how this feels: Overwhelming. The stress. The uncertainty. How will this turn out? What will I do?
I am overwhelmed now. You and I are in good company. The best among us, those I look up to, those who inspire me, they are all wrestling with the same conditions that cause “overwhelm” (yes, I am creating a word).
Not everyone deals with it the same way. Some remain overwhelmed with “overwhelm,” while others work their way out of it. I’ve observed extraordinary leaders during crises, and they all have an effective strategy and behavioral pattern we can practice. Truth is, those who deal with “overwhelm” best are those with a firm foundation, who have a deep-rooted strength that helps weather the storms. They see farther because they are looking farther. They create clarity out of ambiguity faster because they know what’s important and take action early.
How do we overcome “overwhelm”?
When you are overwhelmed, it beats you down. Overpowers you. Crushes you with its weight. It leads to a host of unhealthy attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors: Panic, fear, misreading the situation, faulty assessments, bad decisions, and misguided actions. The uncertainty clouds the path forward.
When you are overwhelmed, you are so lost in weeds. You cannot see the forest for the trees. You’re unsure where to start or what to do. Every path seems so risky. Your mind reels with all the possible outcomes, most of them negative. So, you hesitate. You decide to wait until you have more information and better clarity. Paralysis.
It’s a self-repeating cycle. “Overwhelm” leads to precisely the attitudes and actions that keep you overwhelmed, confused, bewildered, and locked down. Regardless of why you are overwhelmed, getting it under control always comes down to taking action. Every time, you will act your way out of it. Until you take that first step, progress won’t happen.
When you’re overwhelmed, small steps can seem so useless. Yet, even small steps begin to clear the fog, build confidence to take another small step, and eventually change your outlook. This is true for crises of all sizes, including unexpected changes in career or relationships. But it is especially true with this pandemic. The impacts are so significant and pervasive, fear is rampant. We are overwhelmed in a way we’ve never experienced.
They say, “action cures fear.” It’s true. The best way to address the anxiety, fear, and sense of overwhelming weight is to take action. Learn from it. Then another action. Learn from it. Repeat this pattern over and over. One step at a time. Small steps, consistently taken over time, create momentum and conquer fear.
For leaders, there’s more at stake. It’s one thing to be overwhelmed yourself, but when you are a leader, you have to consider your team and how you help them get through it. Think of the impact on you and your performance, then consider how it impacts the performance of your team (and family). As a leader, you must address yourself first, but then you must help others through this. The formula is the same. You just need to address yourself first.
Self-care is critical in times like these
Every leader needs these four powerful, personal traits during a crisis:
- Clarity amidst ambiguity — Not knowledge of what the future holds, but clear on that next step and faith in the other side of uncertainty.
- Calm in Storm — Able to control emotional and mental responses.
- Thinking without limited information — Able to gather information from multiple sources, think through it, and avoid being paralyzed without all the answers.
- Courage in uncertainty — Able to muster the strength to take action despite an unclear path ahead; Able to function in ambiguity; Resilient enough to adjust and try again.
For most leaders, the natural response to a crisis is to run to it. That is a positive trait of leaders, but it requires a fortitude sourced in other dimensions. Strengthening these areas will clear the head, provide a foundation for steadiness, and fuel courage: Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relationships (Family, friends, work).
It’s time for a hard self-assessment. What’s consuming your time? Is it a productive use? How can you bolster the areas mentioned above?
- Read, listen (book, podcast, music), journal
- Exercise (including walks)
- Sleep (I admit to letting this one slip)
- Healthy diet
- Think & meditate, pray
- Learn & grow; Mentor others
- Family time, create memories (check out my friend Kevin Gergel for ideas at www.GimmickDad.com)
- Build relationships
For leaders to help others (family, team, customers), they must first help themselves. Invest in yourself across all these areas. Begin by investing time. Make it a priority. You’ll have to carve it out. If you don’t, all the noise will consume it, and you’ll miss out on the strength you need.
Reset expectations with yourself and others
All of us have expectations. I do. You do. Our families. Our employees. Our customers. Our suppliers. Expectations are a powerful and often subconscious influence on actions, attitudes, and behaviors. We cannot control them, but we can influence them. We must adjust them if we are to work our way out of this crisis.
Our expectations are informed by hopes, dreams, plans, and especially experiences. Because this crisis is so unique and pervasive, it’s challenging to adjust our expectations. We have no basis, no experience, to inform our expectations right now.
During a crisis, we have to change our behavior to survive, but we’ll struggle until we reset expectations with intention and deliberation. Unrealistic expectations will wreak havoc on our progress. The reasonable expectations from a healthy ecosystem are unreasonable during this disruption. When reality sets in that our expectations cannot be met, fear can crush our vision of the future and debilitate productive action.
Begin by resetting your own expectations. Then, have the tough conversations with those you lead. Do so with care. But do it. Don’t talk around it. The sooner reality sets in, the sooner action can begin.
Sometimes, people need time to grieve over shattered expectations. Me and you, too. It’s essential to give them space to work through it, but don’t let them wallow in it. Everyone will work through this differently and at a different pace. It is crucial to get through it and focus energy on the actions forward.
Know your bookends to create perspective
An influential mentor taught me a powerful lesson about facing the unknown. Gail Dawson has been pouring into me since my early career. A capable leader herself, more than the impressive results she delivered to the business, she multiplied her contribution by developing other leaders. I was fortunate enough to be one of those. I still talk to her and value her advice as much today as the first day.
I had some decisions to make between divergent paths. I called Gail to talk it through. Like a great coach, she uses deep questions to teach impactful lessons. This day was no different. She asked, “What are your bookends?” It got quiet while I pondered what she was really asking. “What is the worst that can happen? What is the best that can happen? Those are your bookends. Now you know what you are dealing with.”
I had to think about it (that’s the point of a coach’s question). I started talking through it, and realized, the worst was not as bad as I was imagining. It changed my perspective and helped me navigate those decisions.
During any crisis, knowing your bookends is essential. Yes, bad things are happening. More bad things will happen. But chances are, your imagination has created far worse scenarios than you face. Which means you are spending time and energy planning for something unlikely to happen. That energy could be spent more productively on a more likely outcome. Know your bookends.
Focus on these leadership priorities
As a leader, you can have a significant impact if you concentrate on these actions and lead your team to do the same:
Focus on reality. Time spent in denial is productivity lost. Reset expectations (your own, employees, customers, suppliers). That might mean some tough talk but speak the truth in care.
Invest in action and forward-thinking. You won’t be able to see far ahead right now, so you’ll need to act amidst ambiguity. It will be uncomfortable but take small steps forward with the best information you have. Action will help you create clarity. It has been said, “action cures fear.” It is undoubtedly true that of all the things you can do, action is always necessary to get to the other side of the crisis. It might be the only thing that will get you there.
DMOA (Decide. Move on. Adjust). Years ago, I moved into a role charged to drive a quick transformation (I know, leaders always want change fast, and change is never fast; that’s a topic for another newsletter). The team was bright with in-depth knowledge, but they moved at the speed of molasses — not because they were slow thinkers, but they wanted enough information to eliminate all risk. While we all wanted to avoid risk, we couldn’t afford to wait that long. I always put a weekly quote on the outside of my office door. So, I hung a sign for several weeks with just this text: “DMOA.” Many asked what it meant, but I waited until I could explain it at a town hall. My gimmick created some buzz, but it wasn’t easy to turn that corner. We worked through it and made significant progress. In times of crisis, action is more valuable than perfect information.
- Shorten the decision cycle. Time spent waiting on clarity and data is progress lost. Don’t get paralyzed by analysis. Make decisions faster, with the best info you have, but less than you crave.
- Act and evaluate the outcome. This will begin to create clarity.
- Adjust quickly. Be flexible.
Communicate. Often, clearly, honestly, two-way. To employees, customers, and suppliers. Over-communicate.
Don’t worry. Worry adds no value but wastes valuable energy. Never in the history of the world has worry solved anything. Instead, it steals the future of what progress you could make today. Why spend precious resources on something that will have no positive impact? Stop it. The self-care suggestions above will help. Taking action will help even more.
Clear your head. Encourage your team to clear their heads. Enjoy a hobby (music, art, reading). Exercise (walk, run). Meditate. Pray. Get some family time (create some new memories). Use the self-care suggestions above.
Addressing a crisis with action
Design your actions to address all three of these categories.
- Control: Ask yourself, what about this can I control? You are looking for actions that might avoid impacts altogether, turn-around the situation, or at least parts of it. The truth is, this list will be short because there’s little you can actually control. For example, you cannot control a hurricane or its path but can control where you are when it makes landfall. As a leader, you cannot control others, even when you sign their paycheck. If you try to control them, you’ll likely lose the opportunity to influence them. To be clear, when you attempt to control others, you often get less cooperation than you otherwise would.
- Influence: Ask yourself, if I can’t control it, how can I influence this? You are looking for actions that will lessen the impact, redirect the outcomes to a more palatable area, or reduce the severity. This list will be longer because you can influence others through relationships, communication, interpersonal skills, creative use of your assets, and teamwork. For example, you cannot control whether hurricane damages your house, but you can influence how much damage by covering windows and putting sandbags around doors.
- Prepare: Ask yourself, if I can’t control or influence its impact, how can I prepare for it? You are looking for actions that get you ready for the inevitable harm of something. This list will also be long because there are many things you cannot control or influence. For example, you cannot prevent damage caused by the hurricane, but you can prepare by taking valuables and keepsakes to a safety deposit box or alternate location, buy hurricane insurance, pack critical medicines for evacuation, and save cash for an emergency fund.
Going through this process will improve your decision making and go a long way to clear your head.
All of us get overwhelmed at times. Right now, the entire world is overwhelmed. But we don’t have to live there. With this pandemic, there is so much outside of our control, and we cannot change many conditions we face. Still, our actions can reduce the impacts, reinvest energy into something more productive, and perhaps even prepare ourselves for the other side of this crisis. Many have more difficult situations than others, but regardless of our circumstances, worry and panic do absolutely nothing to make the situation better. These actions can begin to shift our outcomes to some degree, or at least improve our response. Act. Then act again. Repeat.
Author: Kevin D. Phillips is a consultant, executive coach, and leadership developer helping clients increase profitability, improve customer loyalty, and navigate challenges of rapid growth. As Build Them Up® founder, he is on a mission to help leaders improve organizational results by investing in the people who create them. Connect at www.KevinPhillips.com or on social media at www.HowdyKevin.com. Subscribe to his community and learn about his Great Leader Framework at www.NeverUnderestimatePeople.com.
Copyright © 2020 Kevin D. Phillips. All Rights Reserved.
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