“I’m the only one who can pick up the slack while we try to hire for that executive who left.”
“There’s so much to do, but I’m just not the person who would ever allow my standards to drop.”
“My health and relationships are suffering because I’m working so much.”
What do all of these statements have in common?
A People-pleasing Scenario
Imagine you are invited to a party.
You arrive, bearing a slightly over the top gift for the host (never arrive empty handed, right?). While chatting and enjoying the drinks and snacks you regularly ask the host whether there’s anything you can do to help. As the evening winds down, you stick around to tidy up and end up at the sink washing glassware until the wee hours. You get home very late, exhausted, and the memories of any of the fun people you met or the interesting conversations you had have faded into a distant blur.
Where’s everyone else? Likely home in bed, having arrived, enjoyed and departed – all without feeling the need to “help.” And, presuming none of them spilled guacamole on the white carpet, I’m guessing they were all considered “good guests.”
You, on the other hand, were invited as a guest, but for some reason felt that just “being you and being there” wasn’t enough.
Now translate that scenario into the work environment.
Your Need to do “More”
You’re keen to be well-regarded, you self-identify as a high achiever (maybe even a perfectionist) and “good enough” has never been in your operating system. As a result you start early and end late, you do everything to 110% (or more), you take on extra projects and fill in where colleagues fall short or where there are gaps in the team.
Despite your extraordinary work ethic, superb intellect, great leadership/technical capabilities and excellent results you’re never really sure how you’re doing – so you always do more. In a feedback vacuum you believe the worst and keep doubling down.
Over time you become known as the person everyone can rely on. The person who has incredibly (impossibly?) high standards. And maybe even the person without whom the whole organization would crumble. In times of great business challenge – like now – you dig even deeper to contribute and help solve.
But at what cost?
Is it the “what” or the “who” that matters?
Somewhere along the path of our upbringing we were conditioned to think that we are only as good as our achievements. The “what” of our efforts. The end result of focusing our talents and energies.
While I am sure all of our parents meant well, the damage inflicted by the shower of praise that came with the good grade or the winner’s trophy has had devastating repercussions in the work world.
Sure, getting things done matters, and is usually the focus of measurement in the early stages of a career journey. Once you are leading people, though, the success criteria become more complex – and as a result your focus needs to shift away from delivering personal results and towards being a leader who creates sustainable capacity, assesses business risk and synthesizes insights into creative solutions. There seems to be a lag here, though. It’s what Marshall Goldsmith refers to in his book What Got you Here Won’t get you There.
Whose Opinion Matters, Really?
In all of the statements at the top of this piece is embedded the idea that “people” are watching and passing judgment – and that you’re being constantly assessed against a very high bar of both quality and quantity output. News flash – and if you take nothing else away please take this: fewer people are thinking about you than you realize. Most people are mostly thinking about themselves. Not to mention that if you rely on the opinions of others to feel good about yourself, you’re relinquishing your control over your own sense of self-worth. Add to that the fact that the higher up you go in an organizational hierarchy the fewer pats on the back you’ll receive and it all means that it’s not useful to seek validation from others as your source of confidence and value. Or, as one very wise client of mine said, “The higher up this corporate mountain I go, the more I need to remember to bring my own oxygen.”
Bottom line – if you don’t feel good about who you are, no amount of external feedback will ever matter. And you’ll never do “enough.”
And if you’re always focused on doing more, you’ll empty your tank faster than you’re able to fill it – with severe consequences.
Executives are Leaving Their Roles
We are a small firm, so I don’t presume that our experience can be considered statistically significant, but in just the past few months we as a team have had at least ten different clients either go on stress leave or quit with no new role to go to.
These are smart, accomplished, ambitious, executive level people – men and women – who have hit their breaking point. And ironically, because they’re in senior level roles, they’re the ones who are in the position of being most able to influence the culture. But rather than take a stand for change, they’re driving themselves beyond their limits. They’re buckling under the load of having too much to do and not enough resources with which to do it, all while being the “go to” person for their colleagues, their direct reports – and their families.
What’s the Answer?
Brene Brown talks often about being “enough.” From her book The Gifts of Imperfection, a suggestion for a shift in how you assess your value: “No matter what gets done and what’s left undone, I am enough…I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.” So to start with, a shift in perception from “I do it all” to “I show up as a collaborator, a team player, a creator of capacity and a compassionate leader” would be a great beginning.
From there – boundaries. An overused word, no question, but ironically also an under-deployed behaviour. Some firm personal standards around how much and when you work, when and how you can be accessed, and how you prioritize the things and people in your life beyond work need to be consciously created, communicated and enforced.
Once you’ve got a few parameters in place – self care. Jeannette Bronee’s book (focused on workplace well-being) is a helpful guide here.
And for those in the executive suite – please, some open conversations about work and workplaces and how to better support the humans that make them run. There are increasing calls for change – check this article from Corporate Rebels.
I’m not talking about being irresponsible. I’m posing the idea that perhaps there’s been a collective overstatement of what really constitutes success and, unless we want to see more burnout and related short term disability leaves, we need to change both behaviour and expectations. It may ultimately need a workplace revolution, but to start with I challenge anyone with people leadership responsibility to take a look in the mirror at what real capacity you have to offer your role, and then summon up the courage to calibrate your own efforts as a role model to those seeking an example of what it takes to be successful.