When I read the results of the 2022 Manager Challenges Survey our company recently conducted, it reminded me of the heroic pace today’s managers are attempting to maintain. Respondents indicated they are working an average of 48.5 hours per week and still not getting their work done. When asked how much time they would need to accomplish everything on their to-do list, they estimated it would take more than 60 hours every week.
That’s simply not sustainable. This is reflected in the fact that 66% of all managers have felt symptoms of burnout during the past 12 months. It’s no surprise to learn that middle managers—those operating in the space between frontline supervisors and top management—are the group with the highest percentage of people—75%—experiencing burnout symptoms.
In addition to the sheer workload, one of the biggest causes of stress was mixed messages about priorities. Managers are suffering from fragmentation: too many priorities, too many projects, too many goals, and unclear priorities.
Sound familiar? So what can you do if you are in this situation?
In my work as an executive coach, I often share with clients that if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. And we must have real priorities if we’re to be successful. We must recognize the fact that we can't do everything. This can be a hard lesson for some people to learn, but it's particularly relevant given today’s work environment.
Here's my suggestion. Identify your top three priorities. Seriously—take a minute to write down your top three. Everything else is a nice-to-have (maybe you'll get to those, maybe you won't). Then share this list with your manager and make sure they agree with those priorities in the order you have them. Your boss will probably argue for more than three, but you must be prepared to either stand your ground or negotiate to drop or delay something.
Why is this so important?
Overpromising when you know you’re going to underdeliver is a huge cause of stress. Overpromising and underdelivering causes damage to professional reputations and is a huge stressor. It’s also a disease incubator. Heart problems, digestive problems, and insomnia are waiting for you there. But having just three priorities can prevent this. You're honest with people about what you can do. You let them know what you can't do. And then you do your best. This way, you’re not put in the situation of overpromising and underdelivering.
Next, Set Goals
Having goals is a prerequisite for putting priorities into practice. This might surprise you, but the vast majority of people who are leaders don’t have written goals in place for themselves or for their people. The ones who do have written goals often don’t remember what they are or where they filed them.
One CEO I worked with knew his people had goals but no one took the time to revisit them when the pandemic hit. He suddenly realized everything had changed and the old road map was irrelevant.
How can people be successful if they don't know what's expected of them? How can people measure their results if they don’t know what they are measuring or how they are measuring it? It's the equivalent of making up a job as you go—people simply react to what floats across their desk regardless of how important it might be in the scheme of things.
Setting goals is hard, though. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of communication to align a team about which goals to focus on. The question that needs to be answered is this: of all the things we could do to achieve a large objective or impact a strategy, which ones can we do well that will also make the biggest difference? Taking the time to get the goals right, tedious as that can be, will save a lot of confusion and wheel-spinning down the line.
Having goals is a sound approach. A leader can point to the three top priority goals and help their people eliminate the distraction and noise of anything that isn’t going to help them achieve those goals. Everyone has a shared starting point, crystal clarity on what matters most, and a knowledge of the areas where they are not going to spend precious time.
Ken Blanchard recommended decades ago that people write their goals down, print them out, and post them on the wall over their desk. Nobody thinks they are going to forget their goals, but in the rough-and-tumble scrum of daily work, everybody always does.
While we’re still adjusting to the uncertainty of the past two years, it is especially critical to push back against unreasonable demands and put a stake in the ground for clarity and priorities. That way, everyone can see the progress they are making on projects that matter and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of every day.
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