The Breaking Point

By Bruna Martinuzzi

How much will it take before you snap?

© iStockphoto/Ziutograf

A few years ago, at the height of the technology boom, I spoke with a talented young software engineer who had been fast tracked into a management position. In a very short period of time, he went from being a self-fulfilled, highly competent and respected, individual producer to being a stressed out leader, no longer enjoying his job. He confided that he had felt obliged to accept the promotion but had done so reluctantly.

He soon found that he did not enjoy having to confront chronic under-performers, didn't know how to motivate them or hold them accountable, and was bewildered by the multiplicity of people-related issues that consumed large parts of his day. His training had equipped him to develop algorithms not people. Highly stressed, he was no longer "in the flow", doing what he loved best: Writing software.

Knowing that the skills we have are adequate for the job is one of the requirements for being in the flow, that marvelous state of consciousness described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Management at the Drucker and Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi explains "flow", or "being in the zone", as a state of consciousness where we are so absorbed by what we are doing that we don't even notice the passage of time – hours feel like minutes. I liken it to those times when we are so enthralled in a project or a task, so engaged, that we forget to eat.

For flow to occur, we need to have a balance between our skills and the high challenges we are tasked with. When the challenge is high, yet the skill set for the challenge is low, we are in a state of anxiety. If this condition persists for prolonged periods of time, without relief, we enter a cycle of stress which could lead to burnout.

Another form of stress that we are often reminded about is the stress caused by "technology overload" – excessive e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, Blackberries and now blogs – all of which end up creating a loss of focus and affecting productivity. Our modern day angst of not being able to get it all done leads us to a multitasking frenzy. A recent Time Magazine article explores the issue of multitasking and concludes that frantic multitasking actually deludes us into thinking that we are getting a lot done, while in reality we end up getting less done and the work quality suffers. This is particularly interesting: "When a New York Times reporter interviewed several recent winners of McArthur 'genius' grants, a striking number said they kept cell phones and iPods off or away when in transit so that they could use the downtime for thinking."

A catch-all phrase for multitasking, continuous technology interruptions and the information overload that we are bombarded with daily is "cognitive overload". Leaders are particularly vulnerable to cognitive overload as they are typically required to consider a lot more information than the rest of us. Interestingly, in an article by Dr Howard Gardner, The Synthesizing Leader, which appeared in The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2006, we learn that the single most important trait of future leaders in the developed world is the ability to synthesize information. Synthesizing which information to consider entails, among other things, developing standards for selection, such as source credibility and relevance. It also involves asking questions such as "Does this information form a coherent story?" and "Do these trends make sense?" In our data-rich world, selecting which pieces of information are worthy of our ever shrinking attention span is a key competency for reducing stress and, ultimately, being more effective as a leader.

Besides learning to effectively synthesize information, what can we do to help ourselves and our constituents to minimize stress? Here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Actively develop new leaders' leadership skills
    Make sure that your newly-minted leaders have the appropriate tools needed for their people management responsibilities – this is a key requirement to helping them succeed and minimize stress. This includes mentoring, providing a relevant leadership skills assessment to uncover strengths and areas for development, assisting in the creation of a learning action plan and providing leadership training/or and coaching. It also means providing ongoing support and feedback.
  2. Manage new leaders' performance pro-actively and avoid under-employing people
    Create conditions that allow all your team to be in "the flow" while they achieve results – it is another way of reducing workplace-induced malaise and helping them to perform successfully. In addition to ensuring that individuals have the skills adequate for the job, this also entails setting and communicating clear goals and expectations and providing immediate feedback on how well a person is performing – helping employees understand the effect of their efforts. This means not waiting until the annual review to have a discussion of the employees' performance and confronting them with a laundry list of "improvements". It is also worth mentioning that keeping individuals in positions where their skills far exceeds the challenge is also stressful, and ends up taking its toll. Wherever possible, design jobs that take full advantage of their constituents' talents and that continually raise the bar.
  3. Reduce stress through commitment, control and challenge
    Not everyone, of course, is subject to stress: Some individuals have very strong resilience and are not only better able to cope with stress but they also thrive on stress. These are people who do not overreact, they don't let external events derail them, they continue to keep their eye on the ball and maintain mental resilience, no matter what goes on around them. While everyone else is stuck on the problems, they focus on solutions and have a one track mind: Moving forward. They don't waste time worrying about what they can't change and focus only on their locus of control. Contrast this with the individual who is crushed in the face of adversity, who wastes time being consumed by the "wrongs" committed, who burns bridges and possibly never recovers from the situation. We admire the "resilient" group. What can we learn from these people to help us cope with the stress of adversity in the workplace? The answer is provided by Dr Susan Kobasa and Dr Salvatore Maddi who studied employees undergoing a major restructuring at Illinois Bell Telephone in the 1980s. Their findings are outlined in The Hardy Executive: Health Under Stress, where we learn of the personality traits of stress hardy people, namely, commitment, (being committed to something that is meaningful, for example work, community, family; staying engaged and involved in ongoing events, even in the most trying of circumstances, rather than feeling isolated); control (believing in our ability, through our efforts, to turn events to our advantage rather than adopting a passive and powerless victim mode) and challenge (viewing change, whether positive or negative, as an opportunity to learn rather than as a threat). We can all benefit from these pointers in times of stress.
  4. Create a "Stop Doing" List
    A concept, borrowed from Jim Colllins' Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap.and Others Don't that is useful in minimizing stress and achieving clarity of focus is creating a "Stop Doing List". Those who built companies that went from good to great "displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk". We all have "To Do Lists" but how many of us have created a list to isolate and halt pursuits that don't serve us well any longer? Can you benefit from creating a Stop Doing List? What are your energy drainers? Are these among some of the offenders that may cause you stress: Internalizing others' criticism, fragmented boundaries, power struggles, unprotected personal time, useless networking, continuous one-way favors? What can you do to address these and other drainers? What can you eliminate to make room for what energizes you and brings you closer to achieving your goals?
  5. Focus on your strengths
    Along those same lines, if business strategy is a cause of stress, consider reading this focused, well-researched and insightful book: Profit from the Core: Growth Strategy in an Era of Turbulence by Chris Zook and James Allen. The book reaffirms the timeless tenet that focusing on your core business – that which you do best – is the most efficient way to bring about long-term growth and profit. By refocusing on what you do best, the authors advise, it will also be easier to spot inefficiencies that drain your business. The concept transcends business, though: If we don't narrow down our activities to a fundamental core from which we can grow, a strategy becomes much harder to develop.
  6. Avoid fighting battles you don't need to win
    Pick your battles wisely. How often have we heard this? Yet, in the heat of the moment, do we stop for a second and think: Is this truly worth fighting for? Are you even likely to win? An example of such a no-win battle which can easily occur in the workplace is fighting the power behind the throne: That is, entering into a contest of wills with a person who has no apparent authority but who has great influence. This individual is very adept at working behind the scenes and you can easily find yourself unwittingly on thin ice, wasting your valuable, non-renewable energy. Long ago I came across a statement which said: Maturity is being content to know that you are right without having to prove someone else wrong. How much stress we could eliminate if we were guided by such a philosophy – if we decided to devote each day only to that which is worthy of our attention – our personal achievements and our organization's achievements?
  7. Focus on your priorities
    Minimizing stress also means looking at our life through a holistic lens: Addressing our needs in each area, whether it is physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological or social. What are some daily practices that you can introduce to create reserves in each of these important areas of your life? Reserves help us when we feel depleted from the day's stressors. If you need inspiration in this area, consider reading Dr John C. Maxwell, Today Matters: 12 Daily Practices to Guarantee Tomorrow's Success. Maxwell provides 12 practical guidelines such as practicing and developing good thinking to gain an advantage, practicing commitment to gain tenacity, pursuing growth to give us potential and developing priorities to give us focus. On the latter, is reading and responding to pointless e-mails the first thing you do when you start the day? What about reversing the order? Focusing first on projects that will give you the highest returns for yourself and your organization? Imagine the benefits of establishing this simple initiative as a daily practice. The book is a reminder that "we choose our life by how we spend time" – people who achieve their potential act on their priorities every day.
  8. Consider promotion outside of management
    Finally, it is worth mentioning that that there is another form of less advertised stress: that of the unwelcome promotion. While everyone can be trained to be a leader, the truth is, not everyone enjoys leading others. We can derive an inspiration from 3M, a company which provides their technical people with parallel dual career paths, known as the "dual ladder" system. This means that individuals can still progress in their careers in terms of compensation and other manifestations of advancement without having to enter the management ranks. For example, this approach honors those who excel without forcing them to stray from their natural R & D habitat. Some individuals targeted for a management promotion may be too reluctant to voice their apprehension for fear of making a less than favorable impression. Management needs to be open to this possibility and make it safe for their talented individuals to march to the beat of a different drum.

The software engineer who was catapulted into a leadership position went on to take on more people management responsibilities during the downsizing that took place after the end of the technology boom. He almost reached his breaking point and eventually moved on to another company where he joined the rank and file, and is happily focusing on writing software again. He has come to terms with his personal definition of success: Do what you enjoy! As Jack Nicklaus once said, "It's difficult to excel at something you don't truly enjoy".

Copyright © 2007-2014 Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com.

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Comments (3)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    I also loved this article (and I spared you a thought after your recent posting Hilk - glad you enjoyed this).
    I particularly liked the part of concentrating on your strengths - it is so easy to get caught up in a negative thought spiral about everything we don't have or can't do. I also loved the 'Stop Doing List". I am going to make such a list right now. While reading this article I realised that some of the stuff that belong on the 'stop doing list' is causing me a lot of stress and it just isn't worth it. And it's up to ME to STOP doing it.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • hilk wrote Over a month ago
    Having a Stop Doing List is a new thing I have heard and it is a great inspiration for me.

    I'm going to start right away with one now.

    Thanks for the wonderful article.
  • miadanu wrote Over a month ago
    Nice post. For me there are 2 things that particularly resonate.

    Firstly, knowing when to pick your battles and which to step away from as it just isn't worth the energy. Sometimes I find myself so stuck in the principle of something that I find it hard to let go and accept that some people may want to take a risk that I think isn't worth taking.

    Secondly, the part about having a parallel career ladder for staff. I'm actually trying to promote this where I work as there are staff who are excellent at what they do and deserve to be renumerated for their efforts, but they can't be without moving into management. There is a general move towards this way of thinking in the UK IT industry at the moment with the e-skills sector council having just published the new 'IT Professional Competency Model' as part of their work with the ProfIT alliance.

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