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Why Are We So Overwhelmed? How We Can Regain Control of Corporate Life

“I don’t think it’s healthy for me.”


I was at lunch with an immensely talented client in her 40s—and she wasn’t talking about the menu. She was referring to a high-octane corporate position, which she chose to turn down in favor of a small consulting firm.

She’s hardly alone in her sentiments about corporate life. For the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more clients in my multi-generational, and highly-pedigreed diverse network drowning in the feeling of being overwhelmed. As an executive coach who guides people on their leadership journeys to match the demands of today’s corporate life, I am learning with my clients new ways to face the realities of a growing workplace crisis and perhaps discover new ways to not only survive but thrive within it.

Employee Engagement Surveys Often Miss the Point

Gone are 9 to 5 hours, predictable vacations and dependable pension plans. The last decade has been an age of disruption, which has triggered a call for work-life balance and, ultimately work-life integration. For many, that means “don’t let go of the ever-present tether to your workmates while barely interacting with those at home.” This work life, if we abandon ourselves to it, leaves us no time to be present, no time to rest.

Gallup studies revealing the damage of this psyche have caused many organizations to periodic employee engagement pulse checks. Managers already pressed in at all sides wait in anticipation for their reported scores, which just seem like yet another target to meet.

These types of surveys are worthy to a degree, but if they’re the main artery to address employee engagement, the organization is missing the point. Engagement is about actually engaging others in meaningful dialogue, thinking together, exploring talents, and exploring learnings in the day-to day throws of the business. How many of these conversations are really happening? Instead, as I’ve heard firsthand, employees talk only about the urgent. Meetings are jam-packed so they cut across a lot of topics and don’t get to what is important. Meaningful conversations, beyond the goals or the hot issue of the moment, rarely happen. In fact, most of the “one on one” meetings get canceled.

The Overwhelmed Leading the Overwhelmed

To evolve as leaders, people must evolve themselves, which becomes impossible in a furiously paced culture. We must retrieve something different within ourselves, requiring us to hit the pause button, slow down, and get to know ourselves beyond of the fury of the day. In this age of the accelerated world, we have spent a great deal of time learning our job but not learning ourselves.

The great irony is we need ourselves more than ever. Most of us are not spending the right kind of quality time together (or alone) to cultivate an environment of real engagement. Everyone’s entirely full plate keeps them heads down in their own world – not connecting deeply enough. This is evident at all levels of many organizations.

This disconnect has a real cost. We cannot rest or even find a manageable pace to meet the demands of organizational acrobatics. Quality conversations give way to confusion and drama. As I have dug into the intersection of leadership and engagement in the last 11 years, I’ve systemically seen one common trait: overwhelmed. Even worse, at all in organizations of all sizes, in very different industries, and in any variety of corporate culture, the overwhelmed are leading the overwhelmed.

The “whelmed” in overwhelmed which means capsized, which is exactly what many executive teams are today. Unrelenting demands and uncertain waters have reached unpredictable levels, overwhelming leaders. What worked for them in the past in their hard-earned ascent to a senior role isn’t working nearly as effectively for them now. They’re also seeing risk on the horizon as they have limited time to advance the business model before a point of no return. We live in a time where the deep unknown is very real to us; the certainty and predictability that have been the backbone of much business management are hard to come by.

Organizations are responding by cutting costs faster than ever before while spreading their bets on new initiatives and continuous acquisitions. And in many cases, this follows acquisitions that have created operational fragmentations and inertia that makes moving fast nearly impossible. Everyone is in a barely manageable system, but no one is acknowledging it.

Completing the Thought

My mindfulness guru and coach, Amon Sherriff, has taught me the concept of “an incomplete thought”—something that has no good conclusion, such an unhealthy rumination, a persisting worry, or a twisted fantasy of future catastrophe. When we replay an incomplete thought over and over, we go nowhere or if we do go somewhere, it’s usually into apathy or anxiety. As Amon has reminded me, incomplete thoughts take more energy than complete thoughts.

So when I hear someone say, “Corporate isn’t healthy for me” I hear them actually saying “I can’t live in a world of incomplete thoughts anymore.” We hit walls energetically, work stops working for us, and we start asking bigger questions about our quality of life but have no easy answers.

To move to a complete thought, we need to shift from the mindset of “Things are happening to me and I’m helpless” to “I’m participating in an act of positive momentum to meet whatever is happening.” And this action begins the work of completeness: “I am gaining agency in myself by leaning into this situation.” This often also means we are willing to try new options, engage in new conversations, be objective, and work with a diversity of people. We can create momentum to reach conclusions and move on.

Six ways to achieve complete thoughts for create positive energy, peace…and to avoid the draining and overwhelming incomplete thoughts

As an optimist and believer of the potential in every person I meet, I believe all of us can take advantage of these specific ways to shift amid an overwhelmed environment to operate in place of internal peace even in the most unforgiving situations.

  1. Stop vilifying. Whether we’re talking about executives, front-line employees or specific generations of workers, we’re creating destruction when we create groups of villains. Misery loves company, so this often feels like innocent, light humorous bonding with workmates but it keeps us from a larger opportunity to genuinely invoke meaningful conversations with the diversity of people around us. Read The Millennial Whisperer by Chris Tuff.
  2. Practice engaging in real dialogue with some vulnerability. Researcher Brené Brown has extensively shown how vulnerability is a powerful asset. She articulates the value of having a very real and hard conversation in productive ways where everyone in is willing to be vulnerable to face realities and hear feedback on their ideas. She defines this as a rumble. And if you are an avid business book reader, you probably already read Crucial Conversations, Fierce Conversations, and maybe any number of books on conversation and emotional intelligence. I believe the popularity of this material is tied to the reality that deep down we all know that our quality of connection is the key to the quality of our life. But as the overwhelmed lead the overwhelmed we think that a two hour, half day, or even five-day training course will do the trick as we race back to the same behaviors and into our overwhelmed worlds. Dialogue takes deliberate practice within a group of people willing to practice together. (Look up master facilitator and dialogue expert Annette Simmons for more.) When my clients finally meet this crest in practicing dialogue with their teammates it is often where they unearth their most significant gains and at the same time move into productive relationships that had previously been discounted. Things get better at work.
  3.  Know your listener within more than you answers. When I either observe my clients in meetings or have them replay situations that didn’t pan out the way they had expected, what usually surfaces are conversations filled with more statements and opinions than great questions and even better listening abilities. They relied on what they knew more than what they could learn. Once we shift our paradigm from relying on our answers to relying on our highest state of listening, we discover treasure troves of valuable context that give us new options. We vastly underestimate they heavy lifting listening can do.  I’m so passionate about this topic I designed a half-day learning experience to help people see listening not as an occasional skill but as state of being that drives our leadership. The noise of the incomplete thoughts generated in email, slack rooms, and text streams is slayed when we step into an in-person conversation with the intent to really listen. After an intensive decade of helping leaders and teams do just this, I can promise you the way out of a complex and painful situation comes from deep listening and great questions more than anything else you might do.   To go deeper on the power of stepping into your listener within, here is my recent Leadercast webinar on Liberate Your Listener Liberate your Leadership.
  4. Work on yourself to reach others: Complaining and worrying about the people we don’t like generates a great deal of overwhelming and incomplete thoughts. We focus on them not us as the source of disconnect. Critically judging others while not considering our role in the dynamic (as if we have no part in the problem) is a blind spot for all of us. In psychology, this is called making an attribution error. When I cut you off in traffic: “Sorry, just late for work buddy!” When you cut me off: “What an idiot! You are a terrible driver.” We commit attribution errors in more ways than imaginable in large and small workplace moments. A more empowering option (but counterintuitive) is to work on ourselves and gain deeper understanding of who we are as a more connectable person. Like listening, the idea of expanding our ability to connect versus identifying all the people we see as obstacles is game changing. We use the more difficult passes with folks whose styles challenge us to learn more about what we are made of to reach others.
  5. Heal your body to heal other areas of your life: Working 60 to 80 hours per week? It’s inevitable sometimes, but we just weren’t made for prolonged exhaustion. Try it: You’ll find out. The risk of ignoring your body is much higher than the risk of stepping away from commitments in order to stay in your body—connected to mind and spirit. As disruptive as corporate structures remain and as intense as everyone is moving, you won’t secure your job by outworking the work. That is myth. The common struggle of overscheduled days that destroy our health habits pull us out of our body and we start to unconsciously spiral. I recommend reading Sink, Float or Swim: Sustainable High Performance Doesn’t Happen by Chance – It Happens by Choice by Scott Peltin and Jogi Rippel.
  6.  Make conscious choices and build resilience: In the last few weeks I have had two amazing experiences. First, I became certified in the Harrison approach, a behavioral assessment that helps us understand our preferences toward choices leading to fulfillment, performance, and engagement. Harrison research says we if we do the things we enjoy at least 75% of the time in our job we will be 3 times as effective in our performance. Making conscious choices about our own behaviors is a powerful way to keep us in complete thought mode. We can educate others around us about the best way we connect our strengths based on behavioral preferences into work. Secondly, I had some time with Linda Hoopes an expert in the field of resilience. She has a thoroughly researched platform to help us understand what having resilience means, how to cultivate it and understand our own internal resources. From this we can build resilience muscle to face the ever changing demands – those we create and those that come our way.

It’s time to right the capsized ship of the corporate world by breaking the patterns that are breaking us. This begins with turning incomplete thoughts into complete ones—and taking complete accountability for our thoughts, actions and listening skills. Want to hear more? Let’s connect.