If something’s gotta give, start there: Normalizing Overwhelm

Blog | August 24, 2021

If something’s gotta give, start there: Normalizing Overwhelm

When we are overwhelmed our brain stops working effectively.

We start thinking we must be doing something wrong because everyone else is holding it together just fine. (Or so we think.)

But people are in impossible situations right now. Do we return to the office? Do we not? How do we stay safe in the face of the Delta variant? What about childcare? Our mental health? Our performance at work?
Of course, people are overwhelmed—and you probably are, too.

Struggling against the anxiety only taxes our nervous system even more, making us more overwhelmed, not less.

With our nervous systems rubbed raw by the pandemic, the egregious social and racial violence and all the changes, adjustments, and responsibilities added in the face of it, you have likely seen an uptick in anxiety and overwhelm across your team, if not yourself.

This week, I share a client story that echoes the experience of many of the tech leaders I see—as well as conversations you may be having with your overwhelmed employees right now.

Sarah, a senior operations leader at a major multinational company,  came to her private coaching session with me super stressed out.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have people report into me anymore,” she declared. “Rachel, I need the higher-ups to lower their expectations because I want to be able to deliver well.”

Her words rang warning bells that only got louder as she continued.

Meeting your people where they are—yes, these days it’s often in overwhelm—is a critical first step toward walking that anxiety back to its root and finding the true cause.

“Tell me more. What about this feels important to you?”

Open-ended questions like this leave space for people to gain clarity on what is really going on. As leaders, our role is to guide our people to self-direct as much as possible. We DON’T want to be the holder of all the answers.

“I don’t want to disappoint my superiors, but the deliverables aren’t getting done by my team. I can’t communicate with them. Nothing’s getting through.

If you catch yourself or a team member saying, “I don’t want to let them down.” First: pause. What is the actual issue here? Is it actually inappropriate expectations or is there some inner limiting belief systems that need to be explored?

Consider: Does the speaker have unrealistic expectations of themselves that must be managed?

In Sarah’s case, it was partly the latter. And returning, on the heels of maternity leave, she felt like she had to prove her value to the company.

What unfolded was that, since her team wasn’t delivering, she had been trying to carry them and their project load, herself. Single-handedly.

Her “solution” wasn’t making sense. When there’s a cloud of confusion, typically, what’s being said masks more beneath the surface, consciously or not.

So if you hear something that makes you cock your head to the side and go, Huh? Trust your instinct. There’s more to the situation than currently meets the eye. (You can read a deeper dive on this, solving for the right problem, in this article.)

My intuition prodded me toward deeper inquiry. What was really going on?

Return to step one: Ask open-ended questions and mirror back themes. Rinse and repeat until the answers start to land.

“Hold on,” I paused her. “What are you worried about? What is the worst thing that happens if you don’t meet expectations?”

Sarah had just gotten promoted, so the company clearly recognized her skill and had confidence in her abilities. She’s not getting fired anytime soon.

If someone sounds ready to close up shop, it’s an indicator of a level of overwhelm that can’t be ignored.

It was a totally unrealistic expectation that no one had of her but herself. But before we could manage this expectation, we first had to normalize the feelings she was having. Of course, things weren’t going as well as Sarah was used to. She was in an impossible situation: she was working from home, with very little sleep, with unreliable child care for her toddler and new born, and she was working on a highly complicated and incredibly difficult cross functional global project. Her nervous system was utterly overtaxed.

Starting there allowed us to determine the root cause of Sarah’s challenge. Trying to manage or avoid the anxiety from the get-go without digging in would have only made things worse.

If you or your team’s nerves feel a bit frayed, a good coach—and methodology—can help. My team of coaches, certified in the MettaWorks Method, work one-on-one with you or your senior-level report(s) to move past overwhelm and get to the root cause of the issue. To learn more, book a no-obligation exploratory call here.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant