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A Leader Is the Capacity Keeper

Be the shepherd of your team’s time and resources to head off burnout.

When you think of an effective leader, several characteristics likely come to mind: confident, capable, adaptable. And if you read my last three blog posts, you will likely also think of someone who can recognize his or her own demand-to-capacity gaps, is selective about the projects he or she agrees to take on, and is able to tune into the subtle hunches that can reveal the elusive and important challenges that we’re often too busy to notice.

But as an effective leader, it’s also imperative to act as your team’s capacity keeper, or the shepherd of the time, energy, resources, and focus that your employees have to devote to their essential work. We do this to avoid what I call the manager’s dilemma, the phenomenon that occurs when the gap between the demands you face and the resources you have available to meet them widens to the breaking point.

When an organization’s culture is shaped by unreasonably high demands that aren’t materially supported with adequate resources — and there are no vigilant capacity keepers — prolonged capacity gaps cascade throughout an organization and hurt individuals, teams, and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Chronic capacity gaps increase stress and reduce well-being for individuals who must perform against unreasonable expectations in work environments marked by fast-changing, unclear, often conflicting priorities. There are also extremes of activity that produce work–family imbalances and the conditions for disengagement and burnout.

The second-tier effect of these capacity gaps is a protracted disengagement in which your people are less likely to innovate and seek creative solutions, invest time in developing others, and meet more challenging goals. They become more likely to blame others for problems and stay in the job even after mentally quitting. Think this is an issue you don’t need to address? Not likely. According to a Gallup study, about 70 percent of U.S. workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive.

Further, when your team checks out, the bottom line takes a hit. Employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as US$350 billion annually, according to Gallup.

But how can you as an effective leader keep your team energized and well-fueled, and prevent them from checking out? Here are several tactics:

1. Take a real-time pulse check. At any time you can take a moment to assess your, your team’s, or even your organization’s margin movement, or how much capacity remains for the work at hand, by asking yourself three simple questions. If your answers are yes, the downward tilt toward the zero margin effect has begun.

  • Have the demands on your people increased over the past several days (weeks/months/quarters)?
  • Are demands likely to stay elevated or continue to increase?
  • Do you lack the time, energy, and other resources to adequately address the demands on your people?

2. Look for evidence of capacity gaps in your culture. Do your people need to humblebrag about how busy they are in order to get attention? Are you rewarding people for doing more with less, rather than doing better with fewer yet more important things? Are there unwritten rules that make it all but impossible for people to say no without career-limiting implications?

Do your people need to humblebrag about how busy they are in order to get attention?

If you’re unsure, go deeper and ask questions of your team, and then listen to the way people talk about their work. Specifically, talk to them in ways that elevate their own awareness of self-defeating habits that take over when they’re overworked.

When you ask simple, honest questions — How have your demands shifted lately? How have you been challenged to meet demand with your existing resources? What patterns emerge when you work in a capacity gap for a prolonged period? — you’ll get honest, often powerful responses.

With healthy routines to cope with the normal pressures of work, stressful periods are manageable. But when stress goes from the good kind (a jolt of urgency to make it happen when the pressure is on) to the bad kind (unending stress without a means to successfully cope), it can sap your already limited margin and lead you deeper into the dilemma, triggering burnout and then checkout.

3. Stop trying to solve the problem — manage the response better. There will never be enough time, energy, resources, and capacity. Structural forces in the economy have combined to squeeze more productivity while providing fewer resources. Because capacity-to-resource gaps are baked into the role of leaders, the wise response is to manage the edges of the dilemma. These are the small choices that we’re often too busy to pay attention to that actually compound the issues.

As you step back and take real-time pulse checks and then look deeper for evidence of chronic capacity gaps, you gain credibility through the honest and transparent effort to understand and address the issues at hand.

The skillful ability to spot and shrink capacity gaps on the spot is an urgent responsibility for all leaders. And while there is leadership credibility in the display of courage to ask the questions, real integrity is established by a material response to closing the gaps.

This includes precision in goal setting and commitments — and if something is truly important, then it needs to be given commensurate, sustainable resources to achieve it. It means that when somebody tells you, “I’m doing the job of three people since the recent cutbacks,” you translate that to: “I’m on a path to burnout because there is too much on my plate and the likelihood of critical priorities being overlooked is great because nobody can do the job of three people well.” And it includes building a system of checks and balances that enable objective, ongoing assessments of capacity requirements as compared with the existing availability at any time and at every level.

Rather than just assessing a new opportunity by asking, “Is it aligned with our mission and priorities?” you can also ask, “Do we have the existing capacity to do this with excellence, or can we increase our capacity to get it done?”

Once you’ve enlisted others in honest dialogue about the true demands of work, you are better positioned to simplify where possible, refocus where necessary, and develop the courage and confidence to challenge unwritten rules that may directly fuel and sustain the manager’s dilemma.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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