Q&A (3) : How can I be authentic when work gets stressful?

Dear Sarah,

I have a question about leading authentically.

I manage three services within children's services, although my job description states I'm only employed to manage one. This is the result of pressures of a culture in which more for less is the norm. I'm committed to doing a safe, thorough job, but feel increasingly resentful at the pressures placed on me.

I would love to know your thoughts on how to lead authentically, whilst managing staff and picking up issues that are stressful to manage? I feel angry because I am having to deal with issues that I have inherited and are the result of previous poor management/failure to address them and not my own doing. I also notice myself feeling frustrated at the lack of appreciation shown or acknowledgement for the efforts I make.

Kind regards, Liz*

Dear Liz,
Thank you for your question. From your email it sounds like you have to carry a lot of responsibility in your role. You are very committed to doing a good job and leading your team well. However, from what you have written, it also seems that you have too much on your plate and have inherited issues that are causing you considerable stress. Added to this you are feeling under-appreciated and frustrated.

It is hard for me to speak directly into your situation without having a much more detailed conversation with you. But there are some general points that I would love to highlight that will hopefully be of help to you (and to anyone else) who finds themselves in a stressful work situation.

1. Voice your expectations and get agreements
Many of us believe that our bosses or those managing us should know all about the pressures and situations we face on a daily basis. We hope that they are looking out for us and watching our backs. We presume they will let us know if we are doing a super-human amount of work and will put a stop to it. We hope that they are noticing all the great effort we are putting in.

Unfortunately, the problem is that managers are often busy people themselves with their own workload and stresses to look after. If we are just getting on with our work and not saying anything, then the chances are that they will presume that we are okay. How will they know any different? If we collapse in a heap they might get the hint but wouldn't it be better if we could just tell them before that happened?

We need to voice our expectations and let those we work with know what we need and what we are experiencing. If we are facing a tricky or difficult situation, it helps if we can hear our manager's views on what they expect from us. Also, for us to express to them what we feel we can or can't deliver, given the time and resources that we have available to us.

Once both of you have voiced these expectations - then it is worth coming to an agreement together as to the way forward. It is a good idea to get this agreement in writing so that you have a record of it. That way, you can both return to the agreement to review how you are doing and to renegotiate if necessary.

Don't whatever you do, suffer in silence. No one knows what you can or can't cope with unless you let them know.

2. Realise that you can only do your best
You are not super-woman and therefore there is only so much that you can do in the time and with the resources that you have been given. You can only do your best... no more. If you feel you are putting people or projects at risk because you are being over-stretched then it is important to speak up. It might be worth asking your superior how they would like you to proceed given the limitations. Perhaps make helpful suggestions based on what you see as the priorities and then ask them if they agree with those. If they don't, then you will need to ascertain what they want you to focus on and what needs to happen to the rest of your workload if you haven't enough time, finance or staff to make it happen.

3. Lead by example
If you work every hour you have been given, never say 'no' or don't admit when the workload is too much, then this will be the message that you broadcast loud and clear to the staff under you.

If you want to lead authentically, then model what you want to see in your team. If you wish your bosses asked your opinion about how to solve the problem, then be the kind of boss that asks that of your team. If you want a better work-life balance because you feel you would be more productive and effective that way, then make sure that your team is not over-working too much. If you wish you were appreciated more, then make sure that your team know how they are doing and what you appreciate in them. If you want to be authentic, then admit to them when you are struggling and allow them to speak up too. If you need your team to go the extra mile, then go the extra mile with them but try not to make it a habit for any of your sakes.

4. Share the load
I know when I get stressed my temptation is to start doing everything myself. I worry that delegating will just make things harder because I will need to explain everything to someone else and then after all that, they might not do the job 100% right. That isn't a great approach and isn't one I would recommend.

Unless we work solo, we have been put in a team for a reason. We are there to pull together and to help each other and there will be people on the team who have different skills or just more time on their hands. Make use of them! It is worth delegating what you can and trust people with as much as you can. Most people love to be included and feel useful.

Use the language of 'we' and the team are more likely to want to pull together. If your staff think that you believe they can rise to the challenge and do the job at hand, then they are much more likely to perform well for you. Who could you trust with more this week? What would they need from you in order to do that job well (which might not necessarily mean exactly like you)?

5. Look after yourself
We can't work well or effectively if we are over-tired, hungry, over-whelmed or completely out of our depth. We can only keep going so long with adrenaline and cortisol pumping through us but at some stage if we don't start looking after ourselves, we will collapse.

It is important to make sure that you have enough time to sleep properly and to switch off from work. It is very hard to think with clarity when we are not functioning in a healthy way. Are you having fun in your life? What are you doing to relax or recharge?

When you travel on a plane the safety instructions tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping a child. It is the same at work. If you want to be effective to your staff, clients and patients, then you must make sure that you look after yourself first, otherwise you won't be able to look after them. It starts with you.

I hope that is of some help Liz. It is also worth asking yourself, what needs to change for you to be happy with your job? And also how bad does it need to get before you quit? Get clear on what you need and how much you can take. Only you can know where your limit is and when it has been reached.

Thank you for your question. I hope you find a way through soon and that your situation improves soon, whatever actions you take.

 Until then, be bold, be brave and be yourself
Love, Sarah.

*Name has been changed.

If you have a question about how to live, love or lead more authentically then use the contact form here and we will try to include it in a future Q&A. If we do use your question we will send you a free copy of my book "Inside Out – how to have authentic relationships with everyone in your life."