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How to Lead When Your Team is Overwhelmed…And You Are Too

Tight deadlines. Competing priorities. Back-to-back meetings. Daily distractions. Circumstances we encounter from time to time in our jobs, and if not managed well, can lead to a loss of productivity and burnout in your team. It becomes especially important when you are the leader and are experiencing the same feeling.

Having been in this place before, I have become more in tune to recognizing the signals of overwhelm. When I face the long list of “to do’s”, especially after full meeting days, I tend to get into a freeze mode where I do nothing, feeling like I have no control over what I do and when I can do it. Learning from experiences, I am much better at recognizing this early on to avoid a downward spiral. Even so, I’d much rather prevent it in the first place, and this is where I have the power to turn a negative into a growth opportunity.

During times of overwhelm, feelings of uncertainty creep in and keep you from finding solutions, and chances are, your team may feel the same way. How you show up in this moment is pivotal, and it starts by identifying your growth point: what can you do today to manage these situations better tomorrow?

Lead from the inside: In my book Growth Point, I connect how amplifying our awareness raises our level of consciousness, so we are more informed about why and how we respond to various situations. Self-awareness is more than being aware. It is using what we learn to understand how we can be more skillful in our response, so we use our strengths wisely and recognize when we get in our own way. Consider these three strategies to lead yourself through overwhelm:

1. Give yourself some grace. Feeling overwhelmed happens to the best of us because we genuinely care about the work we do and the impact we have on others. Sometimes, this can cause unhealthy stress. Take a step back, a deep breath, and reinforce your good intentions.

2. Confirm you are clear on goals and priorities. Understanding your manager’s goals is necessary to properly identify and align the goals and priorities of your team. Revisit these expectations and take an inventory of your goals and those of your team to validate how they help achieve the broader objectives of the organization.

3. Identify the role you play. At times, we unknowingly contribute to the situation–get caught up in the latest idea, shiny object, or squeakiest wheel. Before placing attention on them, ask yourself: “If I am saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?” A powerful way to surface what is really more important.

Lead from the outside: Your team is counting on you to make the tough calls, back them up, and help them see how they can be most valuable to the organization. When you lead from the outside, you are leading with empathy and placing yourself in the experience of others. With this newfound understanding, you gain credibility and influence others more effectively. Consider these three strategies to lead others through overwhelm:

1. Attend to your commitments: When you manage up, you articulate what goes into producing quality work, and your team sees you value their contributions and needs. The worst thing you can do is commit to a timeline you will not meet or one that will add to the overwhelm. When you face competing priorities beyond what you are resourced, evaluate alternatives with your manager. They want you to succeed and can support you best when you are upfront about it.

2. Influence your stakeholders: Those that work outside your direct team are not necessarily aware of other commitments on your plate, so your ability to influence is critical to supporting your team. To manage workflow effectively, understand what is important to your colleagues and how it helps achieve broader organizational goals. This will help you prioritize the work based on what you previously aligned with your manager. Address conflicts openly to find mutually beneficial solutions and communicate with your team along the way so they can successfully adapt.

3. View the “day in the life”: Stepping into the day of your team shows you care and helps you identify ways to provide relief. Observing interactions or simply asking your team about their day will broaden your perspective so you can see what adjustments may be necessary. A few questions to get started: What helped you move forward and what hindered progress yesterday? What was your most effective/least effective meeting and why? What are you working on now that you don’t enjoy doing? If you had more focused time, what would you do with it? Expanding your view this way will also provide valuable insight as you manage your commitments and influence stakeholders.

Overwhelm can create more damage over time, so understanding how you need to show up - for yourself, and your team - will help you relieve the pressure so everyone can be at their best. When you balance leading from the inside and the outside, you will find that you are controlling overwhelm vs. overwhelm controlling you.

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