By Jesse Sostrin
In my 2013 book “Beyond the Job Description,” I wrote: “In today’s competitive landscape, standing out, getting ahead of the change curve, and staying relevant at work comes from the ability to go beyond your job description and continuously improve your learning and performance as you confront the hidden demands of work.”
Unfortunately, some people have taken quotes like these and either co-opted them to echo corporate America’s unsustainable mantra of “do more with less” or erroneously interpreted them to suggest that pushing yourself longer and sacrificing more is the only viable path to success.
However, the brute force of going above and beyond can actually cause more damage and make you fall behind. That is because today’s emerging and established leaders face an intractable situation where there is not enough time, energy, resources or focus to meet the increasing demands they face.
This impossible circumstance is a true dilemma with no easy answers, and the scale of the problem is significant. Some 61 percent of managers say they are working below their optimal energy level according to the eePulse June 2014 study “Leader Energy and Confidence Ring Alarm Bells.”
That rather large number only tells part of the story. When the gap between the demands you face and the shrinking resources you have to meet them widens past the point of no return, the manager’s dilemma takes hold.
To catch up and stay afloat, you inadvertently begin to work against yourself in counterproductive ways that make your solutions powerless, your advantages weak, and your already scare supply of time, energy, resources and focus even more tenuous. These self-defeating habits are the hidden costs of doing more with less.
The moment the inverse equation of increasing demands and shrinking resources kicks in, managers get caught in firefighting mode as they face a series of impossible trade-offs: Which goal rises above all other priorities? Which “fire of the day” gets extinguished while others are selectively ignored because there are too few resources available to put them all out?
If you manage people, priorities or projects, you are susceptible to the dilemma. And if you lead teams and organizations, then you are the steward of a culture that makes it more or less likely the dilemma will take effect for others. The good news is the underlying factors that create and sustain the manager’s dilemma can be addressed to actually boost your capacity to lead effectively.
Here are two strategies to avoid falling into the trap:
- Distinguish your contribution. When the dilemma sets in, it spins your wheels, causing extra effort with less effectiveness. This can turn even the most talented individual into a mediocre performer. When you need your contributions to the team and organization to be at their best, the dilemma lulls you into thinking the best way to keep your head above water is to do a little bit of everything. Rather than saying “yes” to every request, hone in on your distinctive contribution. Be selective with which projects and priorities you accept. This gives you leverage because your impact is clearer, and the recognition you receive for doing great work in your area of desired expertise produces more and better opportunities to shine.
- Determine your line of sight. When things get busy, it is easy to slip into firefighting mode and simply react to the demands you face. This can turn you around and distort your values and goals. A line of sight is a visible connection among your priorities, desired outcomes, and the factors that influence your pursuit of those things. When others are turned around, chasing their tails and following shiny objects, you’re tethered. To establish a clear line of sight, start with these questions: What aspect of my work requires greater focus? In this area, what factors matter to me and other people, such as bosses, that I have to satisfy? Which of these specific factors are important enough to track in my line of sight?
Implementing strategies like these can help you avoid burnout and deliver more value. Over time it will have the same effect of going above and beyond as well as reduce your susceptibility to the manager’s dilemma.
Jesse Sostrin is founder and president of Sostrin Consulting, a leadership and organization development company, and author of “Beyond the Job Description.” Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.