Overwhelm: a Dangerous State for Leaders and Organizations

Individuals, teams and entire organizations can easily slip from working hard in a productive manner to a state of overwhelm that generates diminishing results. Some even confuse overwhelm with results. The flawed thinking goes something like this: “we are so miserable; it’s got to mean we are productive”.  In reality overwhelm  is a state of ineffectiveness. The challenge for leaders is to understand the signals of overwhelm correctly and then refuse to accept it as a normal state of operation.

When we raise the topic of how overextended their teams are, leaders often respond with a display of annoyance perhaps because they themselves feel overwhelmed. Or they respond as if it were “fate”, not believing that they have any other option at the time.  Typically they explain that, before they can deal with overwhelm, they must first wait for things to calm down —wait for the annual conference to be over, the new product to be released, manufacturing problems to be fixed. And so on.

In our experience, milestones easily come and go with little relief; what had been put on the back burner becomes urgent — with a vengeance; then new reasons abound to postpone tackling overwhelm. As a result, with each step, the organization moves closer toward a potential crisis. We have at other times discussed the impact of overwhelm on a leader’s ability to confront reality and make the right decisions.  What we have learned from many such situations is that overwhelm feeds on itself.

Downward Spiral of Overwhelm

The trap is that the leader is unable to step back and take the necessary decision to act, i.e. to get the team together, take the time to regroup, find new solutions and organize to implement them. This inability to step off the treadmill and recognize that overwhelm has become the normal state of affairs signals that the organization is sliding into chaos.

Chaos is characterized by staff and leaders that are so overextended they are unable to clearly know what to do next. Chaos is a dangerous place. Critical decisions are delayed, ignored or opposed for fear of further stress on the team or system. So much so that organizations lose their capacity to fulfill objectives and respond to shocks.

As most leaders know, sudden danger can come from within the organization or without. In a state of chaos, breakdowns in performance occur with increasing frequency: these include mistakes that impact client relationships, or impair capacity, such as the sudden departure of key personnel, the collapse of an essential software process, the disruption of a manufacturing accident. External threats may be even more devastating, such as rapid shifts in the competitive environment, or interruption in funding. The scenarios are many but the result is the same: when the crisis strikes, an organization in chaos is unprepared to react.

One likely outcome is that the leader will be removed, either immediately for failing to anticipate problems or soon after when it becomes evident that the deteriorating situation is next to impossible to turn around. This is a scenario we have witnessed numerous times when leaders have convinced themselves that slow change is the safe way to manage.

Not acknowledging overwhelm as a sign of organizational breakdown is a common mistake of leaders under performance pressure. While they may agree that some change is needed, they fail to act, allowing teams to operate in a state of overwhelm for too long, delaying fundamental decisions over and over again, unable to prioritize short-term demands and long-term viability issues.  The results of this downward spiral are nothing short of disastrous.

Overwhelm needs to be considered a priority, not an after-thought to be addressed when everything has gone quiet again. Many leaders learn the lesson too late and at their own expense. Organizations discover the high costs of having procrastinated when the crisis is on them. Working too hard for too long? Time to remind everyone of the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine.”

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