Liberate Yourself from Daily Overwhelm
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, I took a day job (while going to college at night) where I worked as an assistant to three different managers. It was a small enough company to be unable to afford a separate assistant for each. Especially since they didn't actually have enough work individually to warrant one. They were all representatives for an engineering firm that contracted to the federal government and spent most of their time in the field. To put it less elegantly, they were salesmen who spent most of their time schmoozing with repeat customers about contact performance and upcoming contract renewals.
Each of them had the same bad habits: they waited until the last minute to submit time sheets, reports, and other documents. They each wanted errands run and deliveries made at the last minute. They each wanted records found and analyses performed just before they had to leave to meet with clients. And, quite often, they each wanted me to do all of these things for them at exactly the same time as each other.
Since they had equal status, no one of them had greater priority than any other. Naturally, they each expected me to make the decisions in which I selected the one who had the greatest priority. Also naturally, they were always disappointed with my choices.
This was the first time for each of the men that they had an employee working for them. They were untrained in management and supervision. They were fairly young and inexperienced in working out differences between colleagues of equal status. So, basically, they squabbled among themselves and then blamed everything on me. So I had to do what every wise and experienced employee does. I took a day of sick leave. Also known as I'm-sick-of-this-%^&#@-place-leave.
I spent the day thinking about how to handle the problems, who to see, what to say. Then I went to the employment agency that had placed me with the firm in the first place, told them about my experience and asked them to take out my records and start looking for a new job for me in case I couldn't get it worked out. I also spent some time talking to the employment counselor there about his experiences and know-how in resolving such situations. By the end of the day I had a plan. I rehearsed the plan thoroughly.
The next day I button-holed one of the three. The one who had been kindest to me and the most reasonable. I carefully and objectively laid out the problem for him, asked him for his advice and help. I explained that if the three of them couldn't work things out among them, my own plans included going over their heads to their boss and, if that didn't work, simply giving notice and leaving. I reminded him that I was not their manager and it was not my decision who got priority. I reminded him that it was not I who chose to wait until shortly before deadlines to demand help from someone who had two other people demanding the same help at the same time. I reminded him that I had choices and did not have to tolerate bad tempers from three people who were blaming me for their own bad behavior. And I did it all as a calm explanation.
In this case, it was the manager I talked to that went to his boss and asked for intervention. If you know human behavior, you know the problem was never fully solved, but it was resolved to the point of being tolerable, and even occasionally amusing.
So, what's the moral of the long story?
You see it every day in all kinds of workplaces. People are overwhelmed with the amount of work they are assigned. There have been so many layoffs and job cuts that many, many companies no longer have sufficient workforce to accomplish the work or be able to grow their production. They are trying to do more and more with less and less. It's creating killer stress. As always, since stuff rolls downhill, the further down the organization, the higher the level of stress. Also, the further down the organization, the lower the level of perceived power and choice.
The actuality is that at most levels of the organization, power and choice is about the same. Unless you own a controlling interest in your company or have blackmail leverage, you can be out on the street in five minutes flat. Give or take the wait time for an elevator.
If you have a bad boss or a bad work situation; or you are overwhelmed by unreasonable demands; or you are stressed beyond the limit -- create choices for yourself. No one is going to rescue you. Don't wait until you're fired for performance problems not of your own creation. Get advice. Get counseling. Start looking now for another job. Get new skills if necessary. In short, analyze what's wrong, decide what you want, make a plan and start taking action.
The only power you ever have is to find out your choices -- you always have more than you think -- and take one or more those choices. Sometimes, the choices will including doing things you'd rather not. But generally, if you have a choice that will improve your situation for you, even if it has drawbacks, it's better to opt for going forward. Having and making choices lifts your spirit, reduces your stress and gives you confidence. It makes it possible for you to continue to improve yourself and your situation in steps until you create a satisfying circumstance.
C.S. Clarke, Ph.D. is a psychologist/coach who publishes Superperformance.com: Human Performance and Achievement Resources, providing a wide range of content and tools for improving human performance and productivity. Dr. Clarke also publishes EverydayDelight.com, a website on positive psychology, positive thinking and everyday happiness. Superperformance ® is a trademark.