Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, which, according to at least one interpretation, teaches us that the fastest runner does not always win the race. Likewise, in the Bible, God created the world in six days
and the Sabbath on the seventh, for even the Divine Creator needed rest and renewal. The sages of the Jewish tradition taught: “If you take on too much, you have taken on
nothing at all.”
What is it about human nature that requires our wisdom traditions to continually bombard us with a similar message about the relationship between pace or workload and productivity?
Surely, we know somewhere in our heads and hearts that we cannot do it all and, that at some point, there is a diminishing return to what David Peter Stroh and Marilyn Paul call our “can-do,” 24-7 culture. Yet, the fact that we know this is precisely what makes the phenomenon of “overload” and its deleterious effects on individual and organizational performance so ironic.
As a school leader – in an environment that can often feel akin to working in a hospital emergency room – I have found that interventions to reduce overload require people to change their beliefs and to act in ways that are counterintuitive for those of us in a society so focused on productivity. Making this shift is incredibly difficult.
Through their systems thinking perspective on the overload phenomenon, Stroh and Paul make the case for change by illuminating the unintended consequences and ripple effects of taking on too much with too few resources. They emphasize the need for us to slow down and acknowledge the costs of our learned behaviors, which include high stress, low morale, high turnover, avoidance of hard decisions, ambiguous or conflicting goals, and overall eroding performance.
Their “Ironies of a ‘Can-Do’ Culture” sidebar on page 19 succinctly captures the core problems with overload. One of Miriam Webster’s definitions of irony is “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” Day after day, those of us who struggle with overload live with these ironies, this incongruity, and we know it. So, why is it so hard for us to change?
Rethinking Deeply Held Beliefs
In their books How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work and Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey describe how people’s “hidden immune system” fights their noble impulses to change for the better. Underlying values and beliefs that have helped many people survive (and made some quite successful) might actually impede growth and change. This, to me, lies at the very heart of why it is so difficult to overcome our “can-do” mentality.
The fear of letting people down by setting boundaries and saying no is scary. What if I set limits and people stop trusting me, needing me, praising me for accomplishing so much? A look-over-the-shoulder mentality pervades many workplaces where a subtle or not-so-subtle competition takes place over who works the hardest, the longest, the craziest hours – who lives the least balanced life.
Many professional cultures reinforce the unstated beliefs that
saying no, acknowledging limits, and prioritizing rest and life
outside of work are signs of weakness, or that renewal and
sustainability are inherently conservative, passive, and growth-averse. In fact, prioritizing rest and renewal, as Stroh and Paul prescribe, takes extraordinary courage, which leaders and organizations need to expect and celebrate. Developing a
culture that is sustainable, adaptive, generative, and self-
renewing requires vision, creativity, and the capacity to
inspire and motivate people.
Many people learn their beliefs about what it means to be productive and successful as early as elementary school, where a “race to nowhere” culture pressures students to be what one New York Times editorial called “super people.”
These ideas are deeply ingrained in our society and our professional culture and, for many of us, our sense of self.
With their results and renewal model, Stroh and Paul offer an important framework for unlearning and relearning a new set of beliefs about productivity. Just as Stephen Covey’s concept of “sharpening the saw” serves the ultimate goal of “effective living,” results and renewal principles lead to more than healthy, fulfilling, and sustainable living and working (because these would not be enough in our results-oriented culture!). Counterintuitively, these principles make people and organizations more productive. Less is actually more, and slower is ultimately faster.
Priorities and Focus
One of the fundamental misconceptions that Stroh and Paul address is the belief that people and organizations truly can do it all. They remind us that leaders and institutions need to make difficult, sometimes painful choices about what we can and cannot do. Saying yes to one thing necessarily means saying no to something or someone else, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
I loved Stroh and Paul’s description of Hans Schulz’s approach of asking people to “designate three ‘must-win battles’ per year.” This implies, of course, that Schulz gives implicit permission for his people to lose – or at least not to fight – many other battles. As I understand it, the work of prioritization and focus requires at least three steps:
First, people need the permission to prioritize that Schulz gives his employees and that Stroh and Paul call for.
Second, people need clarity about what their goals and priorities are and how they align with their organization’s
goals and priorities. Third, people need to develop the discipline to stay focused on these priorities, even at the expense of others.
In my experience, different people and different organizations will struggle with one or more of these steps at different times. Some will struggle mightily with winnowing a list of 20 goals down to three. Others will have no trouble identifying which battles they must win but will wrestle with triaging stakeholder needs, competing demands, or even day-to-day tasks.
I have seen firsthand how tools such as the “conscious agreements” that Stroh and Paul describe can help indiv-
iduals, teams, and organizations become more reflective, explicit, and communicative about their priorities. They
also empower individuals to help themselves and to help others stay focused and follow through on their most
Teams of Learners vs. Silos of “Gofers”
Ultimately, the only way our organizations will combat overload is by strengthening people’s capacities to work
together and support each other toward a shared vision. This includes not only what we aim to produce but also how we aim to work together.
One of the most insidious effects of overload that I have observed is its impact on teams and their capacity to
collaborate effectively. So often, when work becomes stressful and demands pile up, people hunker down and teamwork erodes. Rather than being united by the centripetal force of shared vision, values, and good agreements, people are split into silos by the centrifugal force of overload.
The results of this go beyond individual burnout and lack of personal productivity. People get lost (hopefully not trampled) on what leadership expert Ron Heifetz refers to as the “dance floor” and can’t even locate “the balcony,” let alone climb up to it. That is, instead of seeing the big picture, people become gofers, chasing after the task of the moment and putting out fires. As this happens, they get in each other’s way, lose sight of commitments and priorities, and damage their own trustworthiness and the overall trust in their organization.
On the contrary, in a results and renewal culture, stress and workload can actually strengthen teamwork and leadership. They create opportunities for people to improve their relationships with one another by refocusing and doubling-down on core commitments and priorities, acknowledging fears and vulnerabilities, asking for help, and supporting one another in reaching collective goals. Organizations that prioritize learning and renewal even in the face of mounting pressures to produce will remain generative, creative, and forward-looking toward a productive, successful, and sustainable future.