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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Strategies for Leading a Totally Overwhelmed Team


That was the subject line of an email I received recently from Lisa, the marketing director for a large healthcare system. Because she and her team were overworked and overwhelmed, Lisa was struggling to be an effective leader.

Every day, Lisa would find that numerous urgent priorities would pop up, sucking time away from what she felt was her most important mission: thinking strategically and motivating her team.

“How can I carve time out of a ‘normal’ workday to put on my leadership hat, when my team and I have a tremendous workload and there are so many daily, tactical issues that need to be addressed?” Lisa wanted to know. “How do other leaders do it?”

She asked a great question, and in reply, here are four pieces of advice from three executives on how to get out of the weeds, take the lead, and keep your team motivated and engaged even in the worst of times. Hint: Most of these things don’t take much time at all.

1. Take a Stand for Your Team

Early in her career, Liz Brenner, vice president of marketing employee engagement at SAP, received a crash course in how not to engage employees when a leader threw her under the bus in order to deflect responsibility away from himself.

Something had gone seriously wrong, and the senior executive pinned the blame on Brenner, who was a junior employee at the time.

In this highly charged, stressful situation, Brenner learned one of her greatest leadership lessons when her manager stood up to the bully exec on her behalf. “She listened to my side of the story and then fought hard behind the scenes to protect me and my reputation,” Brenner explains. “What a class act.”

When the going gets tough, Brenner says, “Great managers fight for their people.” So when your team is under attack, stressed out, or overwhelmed, you can follow Brenner’s lead by using phrases such as, “I’ve got your back,” “I’m here,” and “My job is to make you successful.” It sounds like a small gesture, but it goes a long way.

2. Release Tension

Holly Pavlika, SVP of brand strategy at Collective Bias, has often been in the trenches with teams that were overwhelmed with work and punishing deadlines.

In a past role in the advertising industry, Pavlika experienced first-hand how quickly a poor leader can crush the spirits of a team that’s already under intense pressure. “I once watched a big-deal creative director destroy his team,” says Pavlika. “He silently tore idea after idea off the wall, then told the team they were going to have to pull an all-nighter to come up with more ideas. They were completely demoralized, and I don't know how the team pulled themselves together to redo the work. He then turned to me to hear about my division’s work and said, ‘I hope you have something better than that (expletive)!’”

So how did Pavlika rally her teams, keeping them energized and creative when they were under pressure? “I would do crazy things to get them to release tension,” she admits. “For example, I once made everyone come into my office and shut the door. I made them scream as loud as they could. They thought I was nuts. But it made them laugh! And laughter is the best medicine for relieving stress, right?”

Another time, she got everyone to wear silly hats. “Someone may have said I was unprofessional,” she concedes, “but those moments made people smile, stop for a minute, and take a break.”

3. Unleash Creativity

After allowing your team to blow off steam and release tension, your next move is to inspire creativity—but forcing it rarely works. “Don’t ever say, ‘You just have to suck it up,’ or ‘That was a great idea, but we’re going to need more where that came from,’” Pavlika warns. If you do, you’ll squelch the very creativity you’re trying to cultivate. Here, again, the out-of-left-field approach works much better.

“I also used to hand out Post-it notes,” she shares. “Everyone was tasked with putting one on their forehead until they contributed an idea to the room.” According to Pavlika, it was amazing how quickly people came up with an idea. “I guess no one wanted to be stuck with a Post-it on his or her head!”

4. Stay Agile

Staying committed to a strategy and being tenacious in your pursuit of goals are laudable leadership attributes, but be wary of target fixation—focusing so intently on a goal that you fail to notice other hazards or obstacles that should be in plain sight. If your team is feeling demoralized by the workload, it might pay to re-evaluate your target altogether.

“Great leaders are able to re-examine goals and plans when new information becomes available,” says Tara Jaye Frank, Hallmark’s vice president of multicultural strategy, who names agility as one of the top 10 “killer” skills that differentiate the best leaders from the merely good ones. Those leaders know when to stay the course and when to reassess.

“Sometimes, what you thought was a good decision yesterday, isn’t today,” says Frank. Staying the course risks burning out your team in pursuit of a goal that’s no longer the right one.

To be an agile leader, don’t be afraid to reexamine your goals and plans. Ask, “What has changed?” “What new information has come to light?” and “What assumptions have we made that are no longer valid?”—and if necessary, re-focus your team on a more rewarding goal.

When you and your team are stuck in the weeds with a tremendous workload, do what the best leaders do: Let them goof off a bit to release tension, help them unleash their creativity, and perhaps most important, take a stand for your them and let them know you’ve got their backs.

Photo of stressed person courtesy of Shutterstock.