Are You an Overwhelmed Leader?

The overwhelmed employee: Simplify the work environment
(Deloitte University Press report, 2014)

There’s lots of good information in this report, but one idea stands out for me: whether leadership in the organization is able to manage their own attention effectively. As a leader, your followers mimic your work style. If you are, or appear to be, overloaded, they assume that this is the state of the world and accept their own overloadedness. After all, if the senior managers can’t handle this situation gracefully, why would the “underlings” believe they can. In fact, Peter Drucker wrote (The Effective Executive, 2006) “Executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates.” Drucker found that management works by example, with new leaders modeling the behaviors of their leaders. He is supported by many others; here is a recent HBR on the effect of leaders’ behavior on organizational culture.

From the Deloitte report: “Nearly six in ten respondents (57 percent) say their organizations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules and helping employees manage information [and schedules]”. Note that these were two separate questions in the survey, so both employees and leaders are struggling with managing knowledge work.

I’ve coached through this situation in the past. Good attention management usually starts at the top of the organization.

As a leader, you need to think carefully about whether your attention management practices are worthy of emulation. Because, whether you want them to or not, your employees are using you for an example. Have conversations with your employees about good practices and the state of their attention and focus.

As an employee, you need to think carefully about your own attention management practices and not default to copying behaviors in the organization. Your leadership and colleagues may have very intentional and thoughtful systems. On the other hand, they may cringe if you copy behaviors that leave them overloaded themselves. Again, the leadership of the firm should foster conversation around this issue, but if your organization is one of the 57%, you may have to take the lead.

Question: Have you thought about developing an attention and information management system to stave off overwhelm?