Overkill at Work

Guest post by Karlin Sloan
Author of Smarter, Faster, Better: Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership

Mitchell thinks he's impressing his boss by e-mailing her on weekends.

Eileen believes she's protecting her job by being the last one to leave at night.

Najit feels she's nurturing her client relationships because she never says "no" to a request.

What's wrong with this picture? Why are we killing ourselves? And how do these things really make us look? I'm all for hard work and dedication, but the last thing I want to see from my team is people burning themselves out-or putting on a performance for my benefit. 

Today I hear more and more "overkill" stories. The good news? They beg a conversation about energy management-versus time management-and why it's an increasingly relevant concept in a global, technology-fueled work environment.

By all accounts, "energy management" is a term coined by Nina Merer, a corporate trainer and coach practicing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Merer's energy management programs took traditional time management concepts and turned them on their head-reframing them for prioritizing people's energy resources.

Energy management is both art and science. To better manage your energy, you need an equal amount of input to output. Deplete your energy stores without "recharging" them, and you sabotage your ability to work efficiently and effectively. 

It's great to demonstrate commitment and competence to your company, but how do you know when "above and beyond" becomes overkill and puts your energy at risk? The answer lies in three questions:

1. Is what I'm doing sustainable over time? 

2. Is what I'm doing something that really adds value?

3. If what I'm doing isn't sustainable and doesn't add value, 
am I gaining something important from it?

If you can't answer "yes" to any of these questions, you've got something to think about-and that's boundary setting.

Setting Boundaries: Rules of the Road

Follow these three simple yet powerful rules, and you can avoid sacrificing your "ROEI"-return on energy investment.

1. Your time and energy are valuable.

If you don't protect your energy, who will? Unless you are superhuman, you need to set up some parameters about when you will-and won't-jump to the rescue or go beyond the call of duty. Everything feels important-your boss, your customers, and your short- and long-term deliverables-so how do you balance it all? Prioritize the time that most feeds your energy-versus simply doing or reacting-and set clear expectations of what you can and cannot do. 

A coach on my team recently told this story: Two principals in a mid-sized organization hired Ken, an outside consultant, to facilitate an upcoming team meeting. When the principals expressed concern about holding the meeting in the company conference room-a space they had custom designed and built for their new offices-Ken asked them why. "Because we always get interrupted when we're there versus offsite, and it makes it impossible to get anything done." The interesting assumption here is that they can't set boundaries when they're in the office, but they can when they're at a remote location. It's not that other things don't crop up when they're offsite, it's that they just don't know about them. Their challenge was to set clear boundaries at the office-absolutely no interruptions-and, to be able to use their new conference room to do productive work. 

2. You don't have to kiss up to look good.

I agree with Dr. Wayne Dyer, well-known author and speaker in the field of self-development, who says, "We teach others how to treat us." At work, you teach others to respect you by respecting your own time and energy-and refusing to be at others' beckon call.

Stan, one of my executive coaching clients, is a key account director for a big-name global consulting firm. One of his clients is very demanding and frequently calls Stan at night and on weekends. Instead of "redirecting" his client to reserve these calls for business hours, Stan makes himself available 24/7 and works hard to meet every request. Unfortunately, this behavior is not sustainable nor is it adding any value. Stan's core belief-the client always comes first-is admirable, but what happens when that belief actually ceases to serve the client? Stan is often so physically and mentally exhausted that he doesn't do his best work. With good intentions, he has created a dynamic in which his client expects him to go above and beyond at all times-at all costs. Stan's challenge is to create a new dynamic, set limits, and show his client that he delivers his best work when he preserves his time and energy. 

3. You have a choice-sustainability or burnout.

To perform at the top of your game, it's critical to work in ways that stave off fatigue and burnout. Sustainable work practices support your ongoing role and responsibilities over time-not just in the heat of the moment.

One key is to stop blaming others for your overwork, and start taking responsibility for setting your own boundaries. Doc Childre, an expert on optimizing human performance and personal effectiveness, teaches that blame is one of the biggest contributors to low or lost energy. Sure, there are those "human" moments when you point a finger or complain about something or someone. In the end, however, you do have a choice. You can choose when to go above and beyond, when to set and stick to your boundaries, and when to adapt to a certain work environment-or to leave that environment if what you're doing isn't sustainable or adding value, or you're not gaining something important from it.