November 2004 Insight Newsletter

1. What We Can Do

When presenting at England’s major Human Resource conference recently the hot topics were stress and toxic emotions, which seem to have increased substantially. Most of the 110 speakers were asked to address solutions ranging from time management to dealing with bullies and bad bosses. A new survey insists British managers are feeling stressed more than North Americans who “are now used to long hours, job insecurity and rapid change.” Does getting used to it really help?

My previous leadership roles always involved turbulent situations. Coping skills developed automatically so I tend to take them for granted. There was stress, but the same skills that create effectiveness both personally and as leaders in any situation help make it manageable. Until a few years ago, staying healthy and setting priorities were the primary recommended solutions. Lately we find those carefully worked-out priorities are constantly turned upside down and now require new approaches. Stress can be worsened by bad managers, other over-stressed colleagues and the daily deluge of voice and e-mail.

What to do?

I found the solution lay in taking control while clearly accounting for things that won’t change – in short: personal leadership. Shifting priorities are now the norm and some bad managers will always exist, but there are also techniques for managing them. As Peter Drucker said: “Crisis management is actually the form of management preferred by most managers.” That doesn’t make it right, but we need to think in terms of flex time in our schedules for it. That allows for the boss (or client, for those who have them as “bosses”) to call, sounding worried, and change things. They’ll insist we drop everything to focus on their new priority. We also need flex time for upset staff or colleagues who don’t handle this as positively as we do. Yes, it’s turbulent, but today it’s what they pay us for – flexibility.

If we let stress build, it can become “toxic” – rising to the level where it affects our ability to stay healthy, attend work and function productively. We may fall into spending more time worrying guiltily about what isn’t getting done at home or work or about the difficult boss or co-worker than we actually spend on results. The first step has to be recognizing limitations and setting priorities, but setting them in such a way that we work on projects when we have time to among the inevitable crises… because they are inevitable. It’s a new way of working and takes practice. To start we have to be clear that these are challenges and they won’t go away. Our anticipation of them, however, can become much better.

Nothing works perfectly the first time you try, but it’s possible to build space in your agenda for on-going projects to be put on hold briefly to fit in emergencies. That means not doing everything at the last minute because you can’t fit several last minute projects around an emergency. It is helpful to visualize and structure projects in small segments that you can work on when you have a few minutes, rather than looking for full days to get things done. Also you can coach team members to get pieces done that can later be assembled into a whole. These approaches take a different kind of planning than in the past, but are quite manageable.

Team work has become increasingly important even to sole practitioners. Everyone now depends on aspects of their projects coming together from others, even from clients themselves, and certainly from co-workers, support staff or consultants. When those pieces don’t show up in reasonable time, we may try to do them ourselves, but the time lost is often fatal to success. Hence the importance of building good relationships and becoming more thoughtful project managers. No one is born with this skill. It develops because you work at it with the right approaches in mind.

It would be nice to think everyone we need to work with would always be conscientious, supportive, positive, helpful, you name it. Of course, that doesn’t happen. You create more of it, though, by being that way yourself. Other effective people are drawn to individuals who are dependable like themselves. If you’re doing your best, you’ll attract others like yourself. Knowing you’re productive and having a network of strong people helps make it easier to deal with difficult co-workers and bosses, too.

You can’t always be assured of dealing only with effective people, but you can give those priority and let the others move further away. This happens naturally, which is why some projects zoom ahead and others sputter out. You can actively seek to engage people in your projects who want to contribute and you can keep them active and engaged by thanking them and responding when they need pieces to move forward. Every great leader is as much a servant as a boss, a helper as a direction-setter, a participant collecting others thoughts and opinions as a visionary with the one great idea.

It can be a delicate balance to lead and also to listen and respond positively. That’s the ultimate challenge of leadership as I point out in all my work. It doesn’t always succeed immediately, but over time you also build greater strength and responsiveness in those you deal with if you show the way by example. You pull them with you and thus make time for everyone to accomplish more.

Some of your time and positive attitude must also go into rest and renewal so you are all fresher and more productive and resilient when you exchange next pieces of the project. “Work life balance” depends on first balancing how you lead to ensure the highest levels of productivity as well as high commitment to keep yourself and your team members healthy and positive no matter what shifting priorities you may encounter. If you know you’re productive, the toxic people who might reduce your motivation have much less impact.

If you help create this sort of environment, potentially toxic emotions are handled before they reach toxic levels. The company must do its part as well by preventing toxic individuals from upsetting everyone, but your own ability to manage can become strong enough to handle the odd exception.

2. Bad Boss Remedies

As always the Internet provides some interesting resources. Here’s the top pick from a search for “coping with bad bosses”. This seems to be a very popular topic on Google as well. Remember you have to take all such advice with a grain of salt and take time to figure out which approaches might work in your own situation. If in doubt you can often get good advice from a human resources specialist or counselor. You don’t want to make the situation worse, but doing nothing almost guarantees it will slide downhill on its own.

3. Dealing with Shifting Priorities

Another fascinating search is for “time management shifting priorities”. Not all the references have advice on what to do about them, but they certainly suggest recognizing that the problem is there, is inevitable and must be planned for to the extent we can. Often comparing advice in this area gives you great insight into what you might find to work for you and what you don’t feel would work.