During my last stint in the Pentagon, I worked for more than a few senior executives who were notorious for wanting too much in too little time. High achievers learned very quickly that the reward for hard work was more work. In fact, my favorite quote (which I used like a club) was one attributed to the late Russian-born New York Times film critic, Abe Weiler:

“Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do the work himself.”

One of our worst habits is to assume, and part of that involves assuming we know how much time and effort a task is going to take when we haven’t actually accomplished that task under the current circumstances. It’s good to get called out for that occasionally… we can usually use a dose of humility.

My sister called me out yesterday for giving her unsolicited advice about how to ride her bike up a nearby steep hill. My suggestion that she just use a lower gear was met with a quick, “So says the man who doesn’t ride a bike.”


And a couple of days ago, I was facilitating a series of Leader Reaction Course tasks for a group from the Wounded Warriors Project. One of the tasks involved horizontally traversing a rock-climbing wall. When one of the participants attacked the wall, he was especially challenged by the fact that he’d lost his left arm in combat. There was plenty of unsolicited advice from his teammates about his next best move. Needless to say, no one was too offended when he called down, “If you think this is so f-ing easy, you come up here and try it.” Some tried with their left hand behind their back; no one advanced a single step.

What does this have to do with you as a leader in your organization? Well, we have a tendency to pile additional work on our teams without giving it too much thought. I assume you know you can’t be successful in your role unless the people who work for you are successful in theirs. But, your team doesn’t become more successful when you assume know how much time and energy additional tasks are going to take. Quite the opposite, and here’s why:

Low morale, higher turnover. For the most part, people come to work wanting to do a good job. When they come to work overwhelmed by yesterday’s unrealistic expectations, and you casually walk by – or worse yet email – with additional work, it’s a morale killer… even if you throw a “git ‘er done” at the end. When that becomes a trend, the frustration leads to burnout which leads to looking for another job.

Poor performance, missed deadlines. When your team feels overwhelmed by the workload, they’ll often rush to finish and deliver low-quality goods on time and/or deliver late; doing both is even worse. When pushing them to do more, you have to decide if you want it done right or take the risk of an on-time, low-quality delivery. We can do some things well, or we can do everything poorly.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned to avoid (and sometimes push back) the ‘too much work, too little time’ conundrum:

Communication. There’s a handy little method of communicating called talking. It really works.

  • First and foremost, bosses – especially senior ones – don’t get to think out loud without their team suffering the consequences. Those who want to please their boss will immediately shift their efforts to making the good idea fairy happy, even if that wasn’t the boss’ intent.
  • When you assign projects, ask and listen to your team about how long they think it will take and what additional resources it might take. You hated drive-by taskings when you were in their shoes; don’t you think they feel the same? And if your top performer pushes back at the additional workload by saying, “I can do that, but I won’t be able to get this done on time,” you’d do well to consider the impact.
  • Create a culture that values honest dialogue about hard issues. Lip service won’t do here, and if your team is afraid to push back, you can go back to the low morale, higher turnover, poor performance, missed deadline section above . Being open to having discussions (two-way, please) about progress and challenges should keep unrealistic expectations in check.

Set clear priorities. Some of my bosses (especially the Army ones) were surprised when I’d walk in and announce my priorities for the day. I was giving them a chance to change my priorities before I got started, because later in the day when they came into my office and gave me additional work, I’d ask them where that fit in my priority list. Make sure your team knows what your priorities are, or suffer from the ‘some things well, everything poorly’ mentioned earlier.

Be flexible. Rigid adherence to self-imposed deadlines is an express ticket to failure. When things go wrong – which only happens when other people and organizations are involved – take a deep breath and adjust your expectations. It’s better to adjust the deadline or delivery date as early as you can, because it gives those who are depending on your team a chance to adjust.

Finally, don’t forget about your teams’ workload outside of work. Many of them are burning their candles at both ends, and stress added unnecessarily at work has a ripple effect on the other parts of their lives. You want them to stay? Make their families want them to stay.

We’re all human, and we like to feel productive, so it’s too bad we sabotage ourselves by taking on more than we can accomplish well. We do it as leaders, and your team does it to please you. The next time your boss gives you a new project, take a few minutes to consider how much time and effort you’re asking from your team when you pass it down the line.

Or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you, leaders.

Share This