There’s always too much work to be done.
The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “As a business leader, what’s your biggest pet peeve?” is written by Laura Chambers, VP of consumer selling at Ebay.
I stared across the table at my manager, dumbfounded. She had just given me what was, in my opinion, the worst piece of advice I had ever heard, not to mention one of my biggest pet peeves. “Laura,” she said, “It’s simple—you just have to drop some balls.”
Here’s the backstory: I was early in my career and had just landed in a role that I was, quite honestly, unqualified for. I was a relatively new people manager, leading a critical and fast-paced piece of the business. I had limited experience in the space, and was managing a large and experienced team. I was completely underwater, working nonstop and close to a breaking point. I was burning out, so I turned to my manager for advice.
But her advice? I couldn’t believe it. I prided myself on not letting anything drop. I followed through, was rigorous, and made things happen, no matter how hard I needed to work. What do you do when your boss tells you to do the one thing you can’t stand seeing other people do? I ignored her advice and trudged through.
Many years later, I came to the realization that she was right. Well, half right. I have learned that there’s a very simple truth to any interesting and challenging role, particularly at a moment of stress and change: There’s always too much work to be done. At any given moment, it’s quite literally impossible to achieve all the goals that you or your manager have set out. Under this stress, I’ve observed that individuals tend to naturally gravitate into one of two reactions.
Team one consists of the “burnouts”: They actually try to do it all. This approach, while well-intentioned, is not sustainable. They’re working late and not sleeping enough; leaders don’t have the energy to lead; and the overall quality of work decreases.
Team two consists of the “droppers”: They know that not everything can get done, and cope by letting assignments slide. There’s often great intention behind this group: They don’t want to let their team down or admit they can’t get everything done, so they don’t communicate what’s falling off their plates.
Obviously, neither of those approaches are optimal. And, after years of managing individuals in both teams, I have realized that there is a better way. It’s in finding the middle ground between the burnouts and the droppers: the “communicating prioritizers.” It looks like this: “I know we are striving to accomplish these 15 tasks in this timeframe, but we can only realistically do 12 of them. I think these are the right 12. Do you agree?”
This approach shows that you’re able to understand the right input needed to complete each task, and that you’re able to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and identify what’s important and what can be achieved. It helps set expectations with your manager, and ensure you’re aligned on what’s most important.
As a manager, I love it when my team has this conversation with me. I am aware that I probably often assign more work than is possible to my teams. And I’m relying on them to work it out. When they communicate their priorities, it shows me that they’re on their game, they’re confident about where they’re headed, and I know I can count on them delivering with confidence. It also demonstrates that they’re managing their own work-life balance, rather than relying on someone else to manage it for them.
If you find yourself heading to one of these zones—burning out or dropping too many projects—just remember that you’re in control. So take a step back and identify what is most important. Prioritize and communicate. In the end, my manager was half-right—burning out is simple to fix, but dropping balls is not the answer.