I regularly talk with managers and leaders who believe they are grinding harder but getting nowhere. One described himself as working in quicksand: “The more hours I spend and the harder I push, the faster we are sinking. I need to do something different.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way.

(At Least) Two Primary Causes of Frustration at Work:

If you peel the layers back far enough on most cases of frustration and burnout, you find two culprits: 

  1. Systemic issues with the organization that are annoying and fixable over time but not controllable by the individual or even in the short-term.
  2. Individual habits, behaviors, and approaches that generate friction and stress but are potentially controllable immediately.

I see both in play regularly.

The systemic issues are brutal. These are process, structure, or communication issues that reek of politics and poor logic, are disconnected from strategy, and breed inefficiencies and stress for many. 

Unfortunately, most systemic issues aren’t immediately repairable much less controllable at the local level. Additionally, when your boat is sinking, it’s not really the right time to assess where the designers went wrong.

In many cases, the issues in play are directly controllable by the manager or leader. These are the habits, behaviors, and routines that you engage in that might not fit the situation.

Five Quick Self-Diagnosis Questions—Am I the problem here?

For anyone leading formally or informally, it helps to take stock when you’re feeling stressed. Here are some starter questions that might point you to the person staring back at you in the mirror as the primary solution.

  1. Do you feel you are working harder and harder and getting nowhere or, worse yet, moving backward?
  2. Are individuals on your team or across the organization running toward or away from you?
  3. Are ideas flowing to you or, are you the one generating all of the ideas?
  4. Are your interactions mostly you asking status questions, or are they exchanges of ideas and discussions emphasizing problem-solving?
  5. Do you find yourself and your team members regularly blaming organizational problems (communication, structure, process) for your more localized problems?

A Case Study in Shifting the Routine to Regain Control

A client leading a vertical market sales team was struggling. Her team’s numbers were down at a time when they were budgeted for their biggest quarter of the year.

She was working longer and longer hours and driving her team harder, yet the results seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. The team members were stressed and near the breaking point, and frankly, the situation was approaching toxic. I was asked to help as a coach and I worried that her flailing might quickly lead to a failed situation. I encouraged this talented, young executive to step back and use some variation of the questions above to assess her situation.  

She did, and I noticed her first behavior change the Monday after our discussion the prior Friday. It seemed trivial, but it turned out to reflect a shift in her thinking and her actions with her team.

She had parked her car as far back as she could get in the back lot. I asked her why she made the change, her response was priceless: “I know things haven’t been working right for me recently. I suspect I’m my own worst enemy, and I’m adjusting my approaches in small ways to jump-start healthier thinking. Parking in the back of the lot gives me a new view and some walking time to think about how to succeed each day before I get into the building.

3 Big Lessons from a Simple Routine Change

While her parking location shift might seem trite, I love the lessons we can draw from this example.

  1. She understood the need to mix things up to improve performance. The simple act of changing a routine helped her push out of a personal rut with her thinking.
  2. She recognized the benefits of thinking deliberately about how to succeed every day. The extra fifteen or so seconds walking was enough time for her to ask herself: “How do I leave my team members in a better situation with every encounter today?”
  3. There was no blame placed on organizational issues, although no one would have quibbled if she lamented the recent bug-riddled software release that we were navigating with clients at the time. She believed she was personally accountable, and she vowed to be part of the solution and not the problem.

That’s a lot of goodness from a simple change in routine.

These Next Adjustments Changed the Temperature on Her Team

In addition to walking and thinking, she did several other things that contributed to a rapid turn-around in the group’s situation:

She called a team meeting and asked for their help. Their first request was for her to back off a bit and let them do what they were great at—cultivate customers.

She asked again what she could do to help. They told her clearly that they needed her support in engaging with internal software development and current clients to assure them the buggy software would be fixed. This would allow the representatives to focus on new business development instead of bugging (bad pun intended) the engineers and product team members and then constantly making apologies to clients.

I suggested she recruit a swim buddy to offer real-time feedback on her actions and approaches. She did, and the swim buddy turned out to be a great source of daily feedback for her. 

And, in what turned out to be a great move, she delegated the pipeline review sessions to her team members. Instead of running them like inquisitions, she committed to serving only as a problem-solver. The reps loved the tone change, and their energy and enthusiasm picked up considerably.

While the team fell just short of their big number that quarter, they set the stage for a great encore. 

The Bottom-Line for Now

There’s a lot that goes wrong every day in the workplace. As stress grows, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of pushing harder, demanding more, and frankly, becoming that manager no one wants or needs. If this feels like you, it’s time to change some behaviors. Start simple and keep building until they tell you it’s working. Jump-start your change by taking a new route to work (or your home office). Remember to adjust your attitude and commit to helping others succeed in every encounter. Then, ask them for their ideas. 

Art's Signature