Helping With Overwhelm

[A Client Story from Gary in Chicago] I’ve been in the real estate leasing business for the last 35 years. A few months ago my long-time business partner retired and it "forced" me to get re-involved with certain areas of the day-to-day operations that I hadn’t been focused on. Something struck me during that time that I didn’t know what to do about. It’s not that I never noticed it before, she’s worked for us for a long time, but I started to see how overwhelmed my general manager, Elizabeth, was. How she was almost literally running around the office throughout the day.

At the same time, she was complaining to me — what felt like too often — about how busy she was, how she didn’t have time to sit and talk with me about how to resolve some open issues we had. The more I tried to talk with her about it, to suggest changes or to challenge some of her decisions, the more she got defensive. And one more thing: The more I talked with her, the more I realized she had taken on responsibility for a variety of side projects and tasks, most of which I’d never asked her to do.

I tried my best to have a productive conversation with her about it. But when asked more questions, she said the office was “just busier than normal” and that she “couldn’t give more responsibility to her assistant,” who she liked but who was making too many mistakes. When I asked whether we should let this assistant go, she said it was difficult because, unknown to me, the assistant was a friend of a friend.

I felt trapped. The office was profitable, things were functioning without any major complaints, and I knew that with whatever ups and downs are always there, the things that needed to get done were getting done. I didn’t feel like I had a good or right way to “complain.” Still, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the workplace environment and, in particular, my relationship with Elizabeth. Now that I was on my own (and reading the Refound blog!) I felt like I had the opportunity to make my business better reflect my expectations and desires, but the things I was trying weren’t working.

I shared the situation with Jonathan, here are the headlines of what he recommended:

  • Create a weekly 1/2 hour private mentoring meeting with Elizabeth;
  • Start by sharing with her my discomfort in meeting with her and my anxiety that she will get defensive;
  • Make it clear that I didn’t know where the conversation would go — other than that I wanted to improve the work environment for her and the other employees;
  • That I wasn’t there to complain about little things or tell her what to do;
  • That I wanted to know what she thought wasn’t going well and how we can improve, and to take some notes;
  • That I wanted her to think about what would make the difference for her, to improve her work experience;
  • That I knew these were not easy questions for her (or anyone) to answer and that it’s not something we’d ever asked of her before;
  • (This was a big one for me): That I wanted this weekly conversation to be about how we can make conditions better, and that excuses were just a way to end an uncomfortable conversation and that I wasn’t going to allow that to happen;
  • And, that my goal for these meetings was not to come up with answers — it was not about what to do differently but how to come to work differently.

It wasn’t easy.  It took me most of that first 30-minute meeting to prove to Elizabeth that I wasn’t there to tell her what to do or to criticize. At one point she said, “Now can you listen to me?” and for 10 minutes went on at length about how well things were going, how everything was getting done and then that she was ‘just’ overwhelmed right now. I took that as my cue and asked if she would be willing to think about why (meaning, why was she feeling overwhelmed?). I shared that when I was overwhelmed, I usually brought that stress home to my wife and family. She deflected and denied that she was stressed at work or home. That was the hardest moment of the meeting for me — I struggled not to respond, to just let it be — and said “Okay.” and that we would keep talking the following week.

I was shocked by what happened next. When it came for my next meeting, Elizabeth walked into the office with a sparkle in her eye and a pad in her hand (full of notes she’d taken). Before I had a chance to ask her how things were going, she jumped in. She told me how, after our first meeting, she went home and talked with her father and her husband to get their advice. She read me the list of things she realized she needed the staff to be responsible for to reduce her workload, including a few things she wanted to know if she could give to me to handle that she felt I was in a better position to deal with (which I gladly took on). And, most importantly, that she’d come to the decision to let go of that assistant and put her attention into training two other long-term employees who, with a little bit of training, could easily fill in the gap. I think it was the first meeting I’ve ever had as a business owner where I didn’t come up with any of the answers. It felt great.

We’ve been meeting in this new format for the last few weeks, and it keeps bringing new openings — not only in my working relationship with Elizabeth but the company culture as a whole. I know we’ll both have to keep at it, but Elizabeth is a different person than she was just a few weeks ago. Now, she is walking around the office in a relaxed way, no more complaining about being too busy, having the time to give me a more detailed answer when I need it and interacting with the rest of the staff and our clients with a warm smile on her face. I can tell that she’s enjoying this new way of working as much as I am grateful that she's making these changes. And all the work that needs to be done is getting done.

I’m not sure I can express the satisfaction that I felt in her acknowledgment of these issues and the relief of her stress and that I was making a difference in someone’s life, and I think mine too. And that at the same time, it’s not easy, I had to hold my ground and put the onus of changing on her instead of defaulting back to my old ways.

— Gary R., Chicago, IL

Jonathan Raymond