Challenge Beliefs

Put yourself in the shoes of one of my interviewees. You’ve been identified as an efficient collaborator: you create high value for others and consume comparatively little time collaborating, as shown by network analytics. And what is your reward for this accomplishment? A ninety-minute interview with me—the flaky academic—to learn how you are pulling this off.

As you can imagine, the first portion of the interview, while important, is relatively mundane. We focus on how you use your calendar differently. We look at the nuances of how you run meetings or use email that make you more efficient, or how you coach others to use your time more productively. In general, it’s a dialogue that stays at a fairly unemotional level as you think through practical tactics that make a difference for you.

But then at around the forty-five-minute mark, things change. As you get more comfortable with me and start to understand the depth of the issue, you begin to recall one or more pivotal decision points in your life. At this stage, if you’re like many of the top collaborators I interviewed, your voice becomes more intense.

Your emotion level rises, and you say something like the following: “You know, Rob, I hit a point in my life where I wasn’t healthy. I had fewer and fewer friends and activities I enjoyed. I was too distant from people I cared about.”

At first, I get excited, expecting to hear that this realization led to a decision to undertake some magnificent act of transformation—hiking the Himalayas, sailing the ocean, learning a concerto, or going on some form of spiritual odyssey. Unfortunately not! Every time I am woefully disappointed with the modesty of the actions these individuals envision.

They thought they might leave work on time one day a week to meet with a personal trainer. Or avoid checking email from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., when their kids went to bed. Or set limits on the number of meetings that could be scheduled per day. Or set aside reflective time to get work done. And so on. All fine ideas, to be sure, but not the potentially life-changing actions I was sure we were building up to.

And here is the amazing part: these highly successful people were extremely worried about taking these actions. How would others react? They envisioned a whirlwind of negative consequences: irate colleagues, disappointed bosses, floundering direct reports, scathing clients. But ultimately, to their credit, they chose to take these modest actions and await the backlash.

Then they chuckle in the interview and tell me that, in fact, hardly anyone noticed that they started leaving work on time or avoiding emails between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. The few colleagues who were aware found ways to adapt. Those who weren’t seemed to adjust automatically. In short, life went on and the world didn’t tilt on its axis.

Clearly, in today’s organizations, reducing overload is an intimidating idea. Most people never try it, and the few who do often become so consumed with worry about the possible repercussions that they limit themselves to only the most minimal steps.

What is so scary? What is the source of that fear? Is it peer pressure? Nasty bosses? Demanding clients? The fact that in the end, my interviewees experienced no repercussions suggests that the forces keeping us buried in overload aren’t all “out there”; in no small part, they are also inside of us.

Whose Rules?

A decade of research shows that we create roughly 50 percent of the collaboration overload problem in the form of the beliefs we hold. By “beliefs,” I mean deeply held, and often unexamined, desires, needs, feelings, expectations, and fears centered around how we assume we need to show up for others each day. Equivalent terms that I often use are “motivators” and, more often, “triggers,” because these feelings motivate or trigger a tendency to jump into collaborations or to help others, when doing so is often not in our best interests or most beneficial to the organization.

Reflect for a moment on your own life. Think of a recent time when you were asked to do something and had discretionary ability to say no. The request was not for a project that you added unique value to, and it did not further your professional or personal aspirations. In fact, you knew with every fiber of your being that you should decline the request. But, in a nanosecond, you generated a series of reasons to say yes. Six weeks in, you wondered why you were always so busy and not living the life you wanted.

Countless managers we spoke with told stories of triggers that got them into overload trouble. It would be hard to itemize them all. The actual list of desires, needs, expectations, feelings, and fears that motivate people and put them into collaboration overload is nearly infinite. So, I’ll talk about the nine most common. These triggers fall into two broad categories: those relating to identity and reputation and those having to do with anxiety and the need for control. (To help you see all the triggers at a glance, I’ve put them together at the end of the chapter.)

You’re certain to have experienced some of these, and my hope is that you can apply the solutions the interviewees provided.

Identity and Reputation Triggers

Let’s look at some of the identity- and reputation-related motivators in detail. What’s fascinating about them is that on the surface, most of these triggers seem like good things, not negatives that will lead to overload, which is one reason it’s so easy to fall prey to them.

The desire to help others

People find this trigger surprising because helping others is a core tenet of one of the most well-established approaches to management: servant leadership. But what’s supposed to be a positive can actually turn into a negative. Scott, the leader we met in chapter 1, embodies the servant-leader ideal and, as a consequence, was always trying to help people—his direct reports, his colleagues, and his bosses. Yet, as we saw, his helpful contributions to discussions and decisions ended up making additional work for himself and others. (See the Coaching Break, “Don’t Do It; Teach It.”)


Don’t Do It; Teach It

The daily choice about how and how much to help others can be challenging, especially when hands-on collaborations fulfill a deep need or reinforce our identity. Often, we get sucked into providing too much direct help and thus becoming the path of least resistance for others to get their work done.

  • Help others become better consumers of your time, energy, and expertise. Do this by providing guidance that fosters independence and creates less reliance on you. This form of assistance can be every bit as satisfying and identity-reinforcing as hands-on help.
  • Be clear about what kinds of issues you should and should not be involved in.
  • Provide resources or assistance, but let teams and team members know they need to solve problems themselves.
  • Coach people to be structured in how they approach you for assistance or input. Help them be clear on what they want out of a conversation. After the first five or so minutes of an interaction, ask, “So that I use your time well, can you quickly let me know what you hoped we would accomplish together?” This helps people stay focused on their goals in meeting with you.
  • Help people see complementarities in their own and others’ work; develop an environment in which others co-create outcomes and produce work in well-functioning collaborations; and frame their collaborations in a way that gives people a sense of purpose.

The sense of fulfillment from accomplishment

This trigger is another constructive quality and an important driver for many people’s achievements. But in the extreme, this leads people to engage in collaborative work that creates overload. The small wins feel good. They reinforce who we are and provide a shot of dopamine. “I constantly have to remind myself to stop solving every easy little problem that comes to me,” one CFO said. “Dealing with those things feels good to me and lets me avoid the big hairy challenges I should be addressing.” To combat this trigger, this leader constantly questions whether he is the only one uniquely qualified to solve each problem, and if the answer is no, he looks for different ways to get the work done so that his attention stays focused.

These two motivators—the desire to help and the satisfaction from accomplishment—set up expectations in ourselves and others that quickly get out of control. When we continually intervene in projects, we expect those we’re helping to respond, which adds to their workload; they in turn come to rely excessively on our continuing help, which adds to our workload. The need for greater accomplishment sets up the expectation in our own and others’ minds that we will tackle every little problem we see, whether or not the result is worth the effort. This becomes an endless cycle of escalating collaboration.

The desire to be influential or recognized for expertise

In a quest for status, we assume that our role is to constantly jump into discussions and offer our expertise, even if it is not fully relevant. Others come to expect our involvement, so they slow their progress to wait for our intervention and adjust for it. Without realizing it, we end up driving work back to ourselves as requests for consultation pile up.

Consider Stella. After toiling away as an HR professional for twenty years, Stella is now a product manager for a technology company that sells HR-related tools. The product she manages is a cutting-edge “engagement tool” that encourages people to recognize coworkers who do things well or exemplify company values. It even allows users to suggest rewards for their colleagues.

Stella loves this product. It’s what drew her to the company. To her, it enables what amounts to crowdsourced management. If your company implements it, your colleagues become your supervisors, your advisers, and your cheering section. It makes the old HR applications that Stella once used as a human resources manager at an athletic-wear company seem prehistoric.

Stella manages a team of fifty people who develop, get feedback on, market, maintain, and sell this cool new product to the company’s existing customers, as well as to startups that don’t yet use the firm’s products. Things were going fine until another group in the company lost its leader to a competitor. The company didn’t see a logical successor within that group, so a senior executive asked Stella to take over the leadership of the team, “just on a temporary basis,” until a permanent head could be recruited.

Her first thought was that the task wouldn’t be worth doing, that it wouldn’t advance her prospects or increase her effectiveness and in fact would cause problems at home. Acting on this first impression of the opportunity could have saved her a lot of grief, but in a nanosecond of doubt, the recognition trigger got the best of her.

She had a vision of how amazing it would feel to master an unfamiliar unit with, in effect, one hand tied behind her back. She thought about the sense of accomplishment and the chance to gain status by influencing others.

All this was happening below Stella’s conscious awareness. Her thought processes weren’t deliberate; they were reactive and tied into her identity and sense of self-worth. She accepted the position. And she wasn’t wrong about the positives. She tamed the bedlam and energized the staff, and it did feel amazing. She got that buzz of accomplishment and influence.

But soon she was also living out all the reasons why she should have said no. She was spending her days maintaining order in the unit she temporarily managed while traveling constantly to meet its clients. Her “real” job suffered, and she was forced to work untenable hours to try and keep up, but she couldn’t. Her assistant, who always had an ear to the ground, said people were grumbling about her absence and lack of leadership.

As a result of her increased burdens, Stella had no time to invest in innovative collaborations or the kinds of informal networks that could lead to longer-term success. She no longer had time for her family or for healthy pursuits, such as exercise or affiliations outside of work. Her self-generated overload was crushing her.

The most-efficient collaborators don’t try to get their sense of purpose and worth from demonstrating their accomplishments or trying to gain status. Instead, they get it from developing others and positioning them to become valued for their own capabilities.

This transition is critical; it is one that all efficient collaborators make to ensure that collaboration overload does not short-circuit their careers. In the words of one leader: “It’s more about growing my people than growing me now. If you can grow people and keep them motivated, they’re going to carry you forward because everyone’s going to be successful … This aspect of my work was not natural at first, but I have come to love it.”

Concern about being labeled a poor performer or colleague

This motivator makes it almost impossible to say no to requests. The knee-jerk response is to say yes early and often, so that everyone knows how competent and responsive we are.

When we get requests from bosses or others, most of us don’t want to hesitate or be seen as complaining. So we feel that we have no choice but to say yes, and the result is that we get overloaded with collaborations. (See the Coaching Break, “Going beyond Binary.”)


Going beyond Binary

You will be surprised to see how liberating it feels to realize that a request does not always require a binary yes or no. To reframe your response in a nonbinary way, follow these steps:

  • Remember that saying yes to something always means saying no to something else, usually something that matters, such as pursuing your long-term professional objectives or personal goals.
  • Ask follow-up questions to fully clarify a request. The request may be smaller than you assume. Sometimes a few well-aimed questions can cause the requester to rethink the request, saving you hours of time. Create a two-by-two matrix where one dimension is impact and the other is effort. If the new request is high on effort but low on impact, ask whether there is an alternative way to meet the request.
  • Offer choices to the person who is requesting your help. If the requester is a leader or client, give them a sense of status or control in the situation by asking them to prioritize what work should get done. For example, ask, “What order would you like me to get these done in?” Asking this question allows you to create visibility into the competing demands you are managing.
  • Set parameters on the solution space. If there are two main dimensions of the hoped-for outcome, such as how quickly it happens and the quality of the finished product, tell the requesters they can push hard on one or the other, but they can’t turn up the volume to eleven for both. “Just this language has totally changed what often was a contentious issue with some stakeholders,” a software manager told me.

The need to be right (versus being able to find the answer)

The need to be on top of all of the details leads to a number of unproductive activities. It pushes us to spend hours preparing for meetings, digging into reports and figures. It may lead us to put a great deal of effort into writing perfect, bulletproof emails. Not only are these preparations often unnecessary, they also block others’ engagement. They don’t allow space for others’ input. The need to be right also has a way of generating excess meetings and emails that consume many people’s time.

Anxiety and Need-for-Control Triggers

The following triggers grow out of worries that are so deep we often aren’t consciously aware of them.

Fear of losing control of a project

This trigger is often tied into people’s belief that they are the most capable of doing the work well. If you worry about losing control of a task or think you’re uniquely able to carry it out, naturally you’re reluctant to delegate or to connect people around you in an effort to form them into a self-sufficient, enterprising team. And if you’re reluctant to delegate or connect, you sentence yourself to a life of trying to do everything yourself, which quickly becomes impossible.

Moreover, control-oriented people never seem to have enough information or a clear-enough process or a perfect-enough plan. For them, the easiest course is always to get more data, build more-thorough processes, and craft a better strategy, and their demands for these things consume hours of others’ time. These leaders create churn and gridlock as the need for collaborative and decision-making interactions multiplies.

Need for closure

This need, which is closely related to the desire for control, can keep you on the phone or the computer late at night tying up loose ends in your email or trying to get that last little task accomplished when you no longer have the creativity or energy for it. Often these closure-driven communication efforts come out half-cooked, forcing others into additional work. For example, you might succeed in meeting a self-imposed midnight deadline for making team assignments, but they’re so poorly thought out that they end up creating unnecessary work and stress for team members, and ultimately they come back to bite you. (See the Coaching Break, “Fighting the Need for Closure.”)


Fighting the Need for Closure

Sometimes when I talk about closure, I get skeptical looks, as in, “Is closure really such an important factor in overload?” The answer is yes. Many super-organized people live and die by completeness, neatness, and getting things wrapped up, settled, and done—to the detriment of all.

  • Avoid completeness for completeness’s sake. It should not be the ultimate goal.
  • Give yourself permission to have a cluttered inbox, to not answer all emails, and to not attend all meetings. Let nonpriority work or requests either wait or fall off your radar screen. People will probably find ways to adapt. One leader told me, “I used to go to every meeting on my calendar because I thought that was important. I have come to the realization that if they really need me, they will come find me. I am probably skipping 30 percent of my meetings now, and work seems to be getting done just fine without me.”
  • Don’t let a personal desire for closure result in your forcing a solution too early. Value the tension of alternative viewpoints; an openness to information or perspectives may result in improvement.

Discomfort with ambiguity

This trigger often comes up in the course of a project when there are unexpected developments, such as a shift in the ground rules or the loss of an original sponsor. There’s a seeming paradox here. People who are uncomfortable with ambiguity often cite its threat to efficiency. The ambiguity-averse argue, very reasonably, that uncertainty can create chaos; it’s better to do the research and have the discussions well ahead of time so that all the details are pinned down.

What they often do not understand is that pinning things down creates excessive new cycles of collaboration. It can lead to significant overload, not only for the manager but for the employees who have to run around looking for—and sometimes manufacturing—hard facts in the fog of uncertainty.

Ultimately, of course, much of this collaborative effort goes to waste. The future rarely unfolds the way we think it will, as experience derails or reveals flaws in even the best-laid plans. The result is disengagement of the people who have wasted their time in the name of defeating ambiguity.

Fear of missing out (FOMO)

The fear of missing out on better projects, better colleagues, and better opportunities can become a persistent, nagging problem that won’t let you rest or stay in the moment. True, career success hinges on an ability to create a marketable portfolio of skills and experiences, and as a consequence, many people—especially those who are just starting the climb—feel an almost frantic need to add experiences to their résumés. They feel vulnerable if they miss an opportunity to learn a new skill. Was that my last chance to learn that skill? They also wonder: Am I falling behind my peers? Social comparisons weigh heavily on young people as connectivity increases and social-media platforms allow for daily monitoring of others’ lives.

Too often, FOMO drives unproductive choices to jump into new collaborative projects. Psychologists have long shown that we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy, and we often overlook the downsides or costs of a leap. So, we end up in projects that overburden us with collaboration and that aren’t well aligned with who we really want to be or what we really want to do with our lives.

The Surge and the Slow Burn

But how does all this happen? I mean, this research has focused on successful people, right? Surely they would be aware of and learn to combat the one or more triggers that get them into trouble. The ramifications are too far-reaching for them to not take action.

I’ve discerned two distinct paths that tend to lead to overload even when we should know better. Some people experience what I call a surge—they get into trouble all at once—while for others, overload occurs through a slow burn. See if you recognize your own experience in one or the other situation.

Surges happen when something big and relatively sudden ramps up collaborative demands. For example, promotion to a first-level leadership role or a manager-of-managers role is a crucible moment in which people face a quick escalation in the volume and diversity of demands coming at them. A sudden demand from a client can have the same effect. Same with a short turnaround on a request for proposal, a plea from an influential colleague, or forces outside of work such as a sick family member. Events like these drive weeks and sometimes months of intense collaborative work that takes time from personal and professional aspirations. Surges can be rough going, as we saw in Stella’s story. But they tend to have somewhat definable starting and ending points.

The slow burn can be much more damaging than the surge in the long run. If you’re experiencing a slow burn, you probably can’t put your finger on when it started. It comes on gradually and builds almost imperceptibly. It is a product of incremental increases in the volume, diversity, and pace of collaborative demands. You tend not to question what you are doing as you add tasks and respond to the demands around you. You work a little deeper into the night or the weekend; you get up earlier to work through email.

And just as it has no clear beginning, the slow burn usually has no definable end. It continues on, year after year. People hang on and hang on. Somehow it’s all bearable, until something goes wrong. At that point, the downward spiral is often fast and furious, and these stories usually don’t end well. Victims of the slow burn have typically worked themselves into such a long-term frenzy that the relationships they need for resilience or well-being are no longer there. They have become unidimensional and define life success as success at work.

What leads smart and successful people to make the decisions that result in this trap? Any of the nine triggers we’ve looked at can be responsible, but the most significant drivers are the latter four—those associated with anxiety and the need for control.

Jonathan, a manager for a geotechnical engineering firm, was in charge of a months-long project advising on the placement of huge pilings needed to support a new, state-of-the-art bridge. His team’s job was to analyze the soil and subsurface of the riverbed.

Jonathan felt that his firm and the construction firm as a whole were lucky to have him on this project, because he knew how critical it was to get the analysis right. A few years earlier, he had been involved in a similar project in which a few of the pilings were put in the wrong places and had to be removed, and during the removal process, the crane unseating one of the pilings collapsed, injuring three people. Having been through that experience, Jonathan could viscerally feel the importance of being accurate this time. In fact, he felt he was way ahead of his team members in his understanding of the project, his motivation to get it right, and his general expertise. So, he closely oversaw the testing of the soil and rock, went over the numbers super carefully, and wrote up many of the recommendations himself.

Jonathan also prided himself on having a precise, orderly, and uncluttered mind. He always tied up loose ends, he always completed one thing before moving on to the next, and he insisted that his crews work in the same way. “Get closure on that before you move on” was an expression he was commonly heard to say. For example, his project manager was a 3D-printing enthusiast and often touted the potential benefits of the technology in modeling riverbeds and pilings. But when he tried to demonstrate his ideas to Jonathan, the technology didn’t seem at all ready for prime time. There were too many ambiguities. Jonathan preferred unambiguous methods that were 100 percent reliable and that could be deployed in discrete stages and whose output could be neatly tucked into reports, without any caveats or maybes.

In a high-stakes situation like this, it can be a legitimate approach to hold on to work, delegate only to people we trust, use only technologies we trust, and get closure on everything. But it can also create two problems:

First, fulfilling your need for control can lead you to cut off sources of messy, ambiguous information—in other words, it can create insularity in your thinking. When the data coming to you is limited in this way, you’re vulnerable to being blindsided by surprises.

Second, holding on to work and delegating only to people you trust and using only proven methods can make team members feel that their autonomy has been diminished. When they feel that way, they lose engagement and a sense of purpose—and their performance lags. So, you’ve got performance risk on both sides: your own work and your team’s work.

Jonathan felt this performance risk every day. He was aware that by stretching himself thin, he was vulnerable, and he was aware that his team sometimes seemed less than fully committed to his standards of excellence. He responded by taking on more and more personal responsibility for quality and performance.

That was his slow burn. To be the one personally responsible for

the pilings, Jonathan constantly increased his collaborations. The things he was consulted on, large and small, continued to multiply. For years he managed it, which was all the more impressive given that he had a two-and-a-half-hour drive each day to and from the bridge site.

My interviewees told stories of managing the slow burn for astonishingly long periods of time. Some of them looked back in wonder—how had they survived? Usually they realized how unbearable their lives were only after a serious jolt of some kind—the loss of a key employee, a sick child or parent, a spouse who said, “Enough,” or a project that took an unexpected negative turn.

Jonathan’s jolt came when, worn down and depressed, he got sick and had to stay out of work for a week. He was wracked with guilt and worry about the job, but there was nothing he could do. It was as though that slow burn had finally burst into flame.

Meanwhile, the bridge site was being run by the 3D-printing enthusiast project manager, who, freed from Jonathan’s strict supervision and constant need for closure, was able to spend some time creating physical models of the riverbed and the pilings. When Jonathan finally dragged himself back to work, expecting to find disasters everywhere, he had the pleasant surprise of seeing how detailed, complete, and useful the 3D models really were. It was clear that they would make the siting of the pilings an order of magnitude easier and more certain.

Jonathan was like a lot of the people I interviewed who were so overwhelmed by the slow burn that they were unable to see alternative ways of working and living. I remember one workshop I ran at a software company. It was nearly 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, after a long week and a long day, yet the session was still going strong, two hours past its ending time. The level of intensity was high. People were eager to talk about their overload and their strategies for fighting it.

We were talking about one senior leader’s overload, and his colleagues, his boss, and I were offering ideas for how he could take action to reduce his burdens. But he was so caught up in his defined ways of working that he couldn’t seem to accept our advice.

“It can’t be that easy,” he said in front of fifty of his peers, many of whom had been speaking from direct experience. He couldn’t be persuaded. “Those ideas just won’t work for me,” he said. “They’re too simplistic.”

This troubled me. He was not belligerent, dogmatic, or arrogant. Throughout the day, he had been one of the most vocal advocates for actions the company should adopt. He listened to his peers; he listened to me. He seemed truly interested in getting to a good outcome. But at the heart of it, he just couldn’t seem to see how.

Then this same experience happened again with partners at one of the world’s most respected consulting companies. And again a month later with a high-powered group of managing directors at one of the world’s leading investment banks. And then several weeks later in a program for chief operating officers from more than fifty of the world’s largest law firms. It was the same dynamic each time: fear and anxiety had taken over, and these smart, successful people, caught in the slow burn, couldn’t see how to resolve their issues.

But they didn’t need to be living so reactively. The solutions to their problems were right in front of them; again and again, their peers would step up with persuasive examples of simple actions that could be taken.

Ultimately, Stella and Jonathan were able to constructively examine their beliefs. They saw that many of their triggers were based on unfounded fears. Stella was able to ease her internal pressure to always say yes to requests and demands, especially from higher-ups; Jonathan was able to let go of some of his need for control and closure.

But like so many people who are burdened with collaboration overload, they still faced the challenge of translating their revised beliefs into action. I will look at this challenge in the next chapter.


Identify the Belief That Most Drives Your Overload

In this chapter, you’ve read about many different types of beliefs, or triggers, that can drive collaboration overload, but in the end, what really matters is which belief or beliefs have an impact on you.

Check off the one practice (or, at most, the two practices) that you see as potentially having the greatest impact for you. Then ask someone who knows you well to do the same with you in mind.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My desire to help others sometimes makes me too easy an outlet for collaborative requests.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

Helping is the quintessential constructive act, and it gives us a sense of purpose, fulfills a deep need to be useful, and bolsters our identity. But if you jump in too quickly or too often, you become a target for ever-expanding collaboration requests that bog you down and prevent you from meeting your bigger goals.

Develop an awareness of why people beat a path to your door. Is it mainly because you represent the route of least resistance? Learn to become comfortable saying no. Remember that saying no helps others become self-reliant. Shift your perspective from one of deriving satisfaction from directly helping to teaching people how to solve their problems.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My sense of fulfillment from accomplishment sometimes leads me to engage in collaborative work that creates overload.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

The bursts of satisfaction that you get from accomplishments large and small can be addictive, preventing you from focusing your energy where it is needed most: on the challenging work where you add the greatest and most distinctive value.

Practice avoiding activities that give you the rush of accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake. Extract yourself or give partial direction while building others’ capabilities. If you must engage in a small task, remind yourself that good enough really is good enough.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My desire to be influential or recognized for my expertise sometimes creates excessive reliance on me.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

The desire to influence others and be recognized can drive excessive collaborative demands. These demands leave you no time to invest in boundary-spanning collaborations or the kinds of informal networks that could lead to longer-term performance and success. Nor do they allow time for family or healthy pursuits. Expertise can become a trap of its own: a focus on your own expertise can prevent you from developing other people.

Don’t continue to look for status in the expertise and knowledge that defined you yesterday. Be ready to let go of those old, familiar ways of interacting so that you can create the space to develop in new ways as a leader who enables the team to take ownership and engage independently in its work.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My concern with being labeled a poor performer or colleague sometimes leads me to engage in collaborations that create overload.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

The worry about getting a negative label makes it almost impossible to say no to a request, not only from higher up but also from colleagues—you may be concerned that saying no could impact you later. But there’s a limit to what you can handle. Don’t let yourself fall into the belief that you have no power in situations where your help is requested. Reframe your responses. Don’t think of the options as binary—yes or no. Instead, offer choices, such as “What order would you like me to get these done in?” Create transparency into your capability and capacity and the volume of demands you are already facing. Then ask the stakeholder to discuss their true needs and see if there is a different way to accomplish the request.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My need to be right (versus being someone who can find an answer) sometimes leads me to spend too much time preparing for and engaging in collaborative activities.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

Whatever the source of the need to be correct—identity and fear are common factors—it generates unproductive activities, pushing people to spend hours preparing for meetings, writing perfect emails, and creating excess work for everyone.

It’s better to admit that you don’t know the exact answer but are able and willing to quickly find out. Establish this early on, at the beginning of a project or when you join a new group. By being authentic about your limits and having the courage to ask questions, you not only reduce your unproductive activities, but also create space for others to be honest. They can safely acknowledge that they don’t have the answers either. All this increases others’ trust in you.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: Fear of losing control of a project—or a belief that I am the most capable of doing the work well—keeps me from delegating tasks or connecting people around me.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

Fulfilling your need for control can leave you overwhelmed with demands, and when you’re overwhelmed, your performance lags. Moreover, holding on to work and delegating only to people you trust makes team members feel that their autonomy has been diminished—and their performance lags.

The ability to get work done through others is a critical capability that managers need to develop and constantly remaster as the scope of their responsibilities changes throughout their careers. Draw a line between high-risk tasks that really do require you to hold on to the work and lower-risk work that you can delegate without concern. Letting go will help you build capability in others and free up your own time to engage in work where you add the greatest value. Celebrate others’ solutions and resist the temptation to point out how you would have done it differently.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My need for closure results in communications (such as sending email late at night or making poorly thought-out assignments) that create unnecessary work or stress for others and drive future interactions back to me.

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What it means and practices that you can implement

An overemphasis on completeness for completeness’s sake creates unnecessary stress for your team members and may send them off chasing unclear objectives that don’t align with the team’s overall work. The need for closure pushes you to try to force solutions, which has a negative impact on project success and increases downstream collaborative demands.

Remind yourself that closure—or an empty email inbox—should not be a priority aim. Don’t answer all emails. Let nonpriority work or requests either wait or slide off your radar screen altogether. Do you attend every meeting on your calendar? The reality is that they’re not equally important. Get in the habit of skipping those where your input isn’t needed and see if people notice.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: My discomfort with ambiguity and managing adaptation as a project unfolds results in excessive collaborative work to overly perfect or obtain buy-in for a plan.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

What it means and practices that you can implement

The most ambiguity-averse people never have enough information or a clear-enough process or a perfect-enough plan. For them, the easiest course is always to get more data, more-thorough processes, and a better strategy, and their demands for these things consume hours of others’ time. These managers create churn and gridlock as the need for collaborative and decision-making interactions multiplies.

The most-efficient collaborators have an expansive tolerance for ambiguity. They don’t need to have everything specified and pinned down, especially in early stages of projects. They focus on being directionally correct, meaning that they make sure they are moving in generally the right direction on the project, and they remain open to adapting their ideas and plans as new information comes in. Push yourself to make a decision in the face of ambiguity. Look to produce a solution in twenty minutes that helps move a plan ahead, rather than spending three hours and consuming others’ time to get to a more accurate solution or employ a more thorough process.

BELIEF OR TRIGGER: Fear of missing out (FOMO) results in my engaging in collaborative work that creates overload.

image You

image Someone who knows you well

What it means and practices that you can implement

Too often, FOMO drives unproductive choices to jump into new collaborative projects. You may end up in projects that overburden you with collaboration and that aren’t well aligned with who you really want to be or what you really want to do with your life.

Before jumping into a new project, make sure that your plans aren’t driven by an emotional, knee-jerk reaction based on fear or social comparison. Cultivate relationships in your network with people who know you well and can provide advice that is based on who you really are. Bring people with a broader scope of responsibilities into your network. Tap these people to develop a counter-narrative that might help you avoid making a decision based on FOMO rather than doing what is truly best for you.

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