Recently, I wrote that the most overlooked factor in effective leadership is capacity: the time, attention, and energy that you, as an individual leader, can give. You cannot manage people, projects, or priorities without it.
However, when the gap between the demands you face and the resources you have available to meet them widens to the breaking point, a phenomenon that I call “the manager’s dilemma” takes hold. You simply do not have the resources, either within the organization or yourself, to handle the existing demand. With so many urgent fires to put out, you end up moving from one piece of unfinished business to the next without resolution. This leads to hurried conversations, truncated meetings, rushed deliverables, and impulsively written emails. Managing both new and previously unfinished work requires you to spin your wheels even faster. Setting aside complex problems to deal with later only compounds your sense of falling further behind. The fatigue from starting, switching, and then restarting produces more errors and further erodes the capacity you have.
You’ve entered a world of perpetually unfinished business. Meetings end without resolution; discussions start and then stop without clear next steps; work is plagued by mistakes; miscommunications need to be clarified; and issues weigh on your mind because they are always partially addressed, but never fully resolved. This pattern can convert even the most talented individual leader into a mediocre performer who stays busy, but not productive.
To address your manager’s dilemma: Hone in on your distinctive contribution and be selective with the projects and priorities you accept. How you approach this subtle challenge has a great impact on your performance. You cannot make progress on the priorities that matter by changing superficial behaviors — for instance, by keeping to-do lists or sorting your email differently.
You cannot prevail by changing superficial behaviors — for instance, keeping to-do lists or sorting your email differently.
A lasting change requires what influential MIT professor and organizational thinker Chris Argyris called double-loop learning: looking closely at the fundamental assumptions underlying your behaviors. Think about your own thinking, and how to change it. As challenging as that may be, it’s still better than living with this dilemma and having it downgrade your effectiveness.
The cluster of thought processes underlying the manager’s dilemma will vary from one person to another. Your thoughts might include these:
- I can’t afford to recharge because things are too busy right now.
- With more time we could do better, but we have to move on to the next issue.
- With so many deadlines and demands, some priorities will have to be sacrificed.
- It’s too busy now, but I’ll refocus on priorities once things settle down.
You can see how counterproductive these statements are. But people tend to become too tangled in the experience to maintain objectivity. And with the loss of objectivity comes the loss of sound judgment. Wendell Berry, the writer and social critic, said, “If one’s judgment is unsound, their expert advice is of little use.” Whether you’re in the business of influencing people, projects, or strategic priorities, the moment you lose your judgment is the moment your contribution and impact decline.
The conventional solutions are inadequate. Focus on what is important and see it through to completion. Make realistic investments of time and energy. Stop multitasking and do one activity at a time. Most leaders are already aware of these solutions, and they know how little they help — especially when you are too busy, tired, and distracted to deploy them.
You already know that to break this pattern, you have to stop saying yes to every request. But which projects do you choose? Pick the ones that will allow you to make the most distinctive contribution. These are the projects in which your impact is greatest.
If you’ve been in a high-demand culture, you’re likely thinking, Sounds good, but how can I do this when I rarely get the final say in my workload, or when there are unwritten rules (say yes, or be labeled selfish or unambitious) that everyone knows you must follow to advance?
You may need more practice in choosing. You may need to attentively evaluate every demand that comes your way, and to look more closely at the contributions that you are most skilled at making. Only you (perhaps with the aid of a coach) know what you do best, and what has the greatest value to the organization. To requests that draw on this talent, you say, “Yes.” To requests that do not, you say, “Yes, if …” and you identify other ways of accomplishing the goals without setting yourself up for failure.
This discerning approach forces you to address your capacity problem head-on. It may mean delegating some tasks to others, negotiating a reduction in your specific contribution, or just saying no while making the business case for why your contributions will have a greater impact elsewhere. A secondary benefit of questioning the value and ownership of a task is that you confirm whether it needs to be done in the first place, and you challenge the assumption that it should be done the way it is being done.
This stance requires a form of courage — pushing back is itself a subtle act of disruption. Nobody can or will do this for you. Being distinctive starts with making your own intentional judgments about what you’re willing and able to do well. And when you tell others, explicitly, that this is meant to give the organization more of what it really needs from you, then other leaders, including those you report to, will support your case. For they see your dilemma as clearly as you do — they just expect you to figure out how to solve it.
You might need to take some time — perhaps a week — to sort through the backlog, figure out which tasks represent your distinctive contribution, and determine how to reorient or redeploy the rest. And it won’t stop there: Aligning your tasks with your distinctive contribution is a regular discipline, just like eating well, exercising, and, yes, managing your time. As you do this, keep in mind some counterintuitive thoughts: What you don’t do is just as powerful as what you do. Being overcommitted is just as likely to lead to underdelivering as being undercommitted. The answer is to be well-committed: to deliver your best by choosing, day in and day out, to focus on work that aligns with your values and interests. Then redeploy the rest.