Stuck in the Flood Mini-Series

This is Part 3 of the mini-series from Real Work Done,  Stuck in the Flood. If you’ll want to catch up, here are the links:
Part 1: The Flood You Can Feel But You Can’t See
Part 2: The Leading Killer of High-Performance Everywhere

Part 3: The Silent Pressure to Do It All

The pressure we experience from ourselves and others to do exceptional work isn’t inherently bad. But the pressure to do it all is an entirely different beast.

We’ve all experienced the intense pressure to do everything at once at some point in our lives, but most leaders feel this pressure all the time. 

I have a high amount of empathy for those in that situation; the pressure is real, and because leaders face an abundance of important things that need to be addressed, prioritizing becomes seemingly impossible.

Even when leaders are keenly aware of the need to prioritize and know that they should say no to some things, it still feels impossibly hard.

The reality is that you can say no to 1,000 things, but if you are left with more to do than you have the capacity to accomplish, you will still experience the intense pressure to start it all at the same time.

There is another reality that is equally true. 

When organizations pursue multiple competing priorities at the same time, even when they are all mission-critical, heavy losses start to emerge:

    • Quality starts to suffer.
    • People start to suffer.
    • The amazing outcomes you know are possible are harder to come by.

    From an individual perspective, this phenomenon of doing multiple things at the same time is well-researched, and we’ve come to know it as multitasking. 

    But what happens when you have a group of people or groups of groups trying to simultaneously deliver on multiple competing objectives at the same time in one organization?

    Some call that organizational multitasking; some call it divided focus.

    I call it flooding. 

    It’s the raging, flooding river of competing priorities that takes over and threatens to sweep everyone away with it. That is what happened to Susana. 

    Susana worked in a biotech lab that was researching treatments for dementia. 

    I was there at the invitation of the chief people officer to do an assessment on team performance across the company. Susana had been at the company for almost 10 years and was widely viewed as one of the company’s most capable analysts. 

    She had been recently assigned to a second lab team that had experienced an unusual amount of turnover and needed someone to fill in. 

    Her to-do list grew longer every day, even though she regularly worked 60+ hours a week.

    “We are making some incredible breakthroughs in our research. Exhaustion is just the price to pay for being at the top of my game,” she declared in our interview. 

    But just a few minutes later, she told me that she was considering accepting a job at a different company because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could sustain her pace of work.

    What would Susana be capable of, I wondered, if she wasn’t constantly working under the pressure of spreading her time meeting the needs of two demanding teams?

    Too often people are put into situations where they must choose between doing good, important work and prioritizing their own humanity. This is almost always a false choice.

    And it leaves employees having to make a hard decision: continue to work for the organization or leave to find a workplace that will value well-being. 

    Happy, healthy people are not a pleasant side effect of a high-performing organization; happy, healthy people are the only path to sustainable high performance.

    The typical understanding of performance leans toward comparison and short-term benefit. 

    Most definitions of high performance are a variation of the dictionary definition: high performance means being “better, faster, or more efficient than others.”

    If you’re just out to make a quick profit for your investors, this definition might work for you. But you won’t lead the market for long this way, and you’ll cause significant harm and suffering. 

    If you’ve made it this far in the mini-series, that sort of short-term gain at all costs isn’t the kind of leadership you stand for. 

    But you may still be stuck finding a different path. Because defining high performance in comparison to others is inherently limiting. 

    It perpetuates the mindset that says, “As long as we are better than our competitors, we are winning.” 

    That is a low bar for success.

    I prefer author and leadership-focused researcher Marcus Buckingham’s definition of high performance from his book, The One Thing You Need to Know: “peak performance means making the greatest possible impact over the longest period of time.”

    In other words, performance is about maximizing human potential over the long term instead of the short term.

    While no leader, not you, not me, can predict the future, I can predict with certainty that change will be part of it, and I will have more to say about that in the next installment. Part 4: Change Is Constant and Unpredictable will arrive at your inbox tomorrow. 

    Until then,


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