I am reading more and more often about businesspeople feeling overwhelmed today, which I find a bit surprising. Senior business folks typically have a great deal of control over their working lives, at least in comparison with those farther down the food chain. Yet, the stories are about feeling no longer in control or uncertain about how to remain productive and focused.

Even the Harvard Business Review has weighed in on this unsettling trend, albeit just before the COVID world came upon us to make things much worse. So it appears that feeling overwhelmed is really nothing new. This article by executive coach Rebecca Zucker talks about cognitive fatigue that shows up in symptoms like “… mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind or an impaired ability to problem solve”.

Prescriptions include pinpointing the primary source of overwhelm, setting boundaries on time and workload, challenging your perfection, outsourcing and delegating, and challenging your assumptions.

To me, these have the distinct flavor of being applicable to a now far-distant past. Today is truly different.

Maxed out as depleted surge capacity

Science journalist Tara Haelle in a recent medium.com article noted that:

“Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.”

Just what is needed to get us through a short-term disaster but wholly inadequate in times of chronic emergency. Being maxed out at times seems inescapable for most of us. She captures the situation perfectly in this short statement:

“How do you adjust to an ever-changing situation where the ‘new normal’ is indefinite uncertainty?”

What we are living through today is not an event or crisis with a defined beginning and end but instead a fundamental shift in almost everything – one that may take decades to complete. Are you ready for a decades-long crisis? How many times can you recharge your surge capacity? I get re-maxed-out just thinking about this.

My sense at this point is that the solution, if there is such a thing, involves a combination of acceptance and adaptation.

Overwhelmed by huge changes and great uncertainty

Maybe feelings of being overwhelmed are actually a healthy reaction to a situation that probably no people in history have ever faced at this scale. That is, if you are not feeling overwhelmed to at least some degree, then maybe you don’t have a good grasp on the situation at hand.

Being “overwhelmed” seems also to refer to being uncertain about what to do rather than being overloaded by work, problems, or stress. Since what have today is something entirely new, there are no guidelines about dealing with this fast-evolving situation.

Seeking some ideas on the web brings up decidedly unhelpful articles featuring five, seven, or even ten things to do when you are feeling overwhelmed. Today, these all seem to me at least to miss the mark – by a lot.

There are quite a few articles outlining steps to take, such as the quite extensive list of tips and advice from Inc’s “Essential Business Survival Guide for the Covid-19 Crisis”. Lots of good nitty-gritty here once you get past your feelings of being overwhelmed, assuming that you do not find the list itself to be overwhelming.

I’m still concerned about being situationally overwhelmed, whatever that may mean in practice. The list of things to do post-angst seem to be heavily oriented toward the “don’t just sit there (being overwhelmed), do something – anything!” kind of advice. You may, like me, want to have some idea about what is going on before charging off in all directions.

This time it really is different

Some things that must be done are usually pretty obvious, technically referred to as no-brainers. These you have to do to operate and survive while you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your business life.

Virtually all of the good business leaders with whom I have dealt over the years are strong, hard-headed, and resourceful. Yet, none of them have ever encountered the chaotic craziness that we are experiencing today. They are great at executing once they have a plan firmly in mind but I have to believe that many of them would be struggling today with the fundamental “what to do” question.

Perhaps “being overwhelmed” for these business leaders refers simply to not knowing enough to make action decisions with confidence. Yet, knowing enough is almost impossible given what has happened over the past months.

You may in fact be frozen into a kind of inaction – into doing what you have always done – pending some better sense for what different to do next.

Not acting until you have a solid plan in mind seems eminently sensible. But this time it is different because you may not figure out what to do until it is too late.

Events and situations may drive you in ways that you do not want but cannot prevent.

When doing anything new is extremely risky

Being frozen into doing what you have always done is both natural and rational. You don’t want to act in terms of anything new until you have a good sense of likely process and outcomes. Being wrong can be very damaging to you and your business. Being wrong is most risky when you truly have no idea what is coming.

Survival actions are typically the least risky even when they involve something new. Non-survival by repeating the past seems very risky. Buying a related business in a better location may be new but possibly not too risky. Borrowing bridge funding may be something that you have never done but it is vital even if fundamentally risky.

If you are situationally-overwhelmed, you may well be limited to apparently low-risk actions pending some sort of return to normal. But what if these actions are likely to result in failure?

When doing something new is the least risky option

It seems pretty clear that nobody knows what is coming along even in the relatively short term. Elections are going to be a beast of some kind but what about post-election chaos?

Maybe the greatest risk we face is not acting, not doing anything new. What if doing same-old is a sure way to disaster. We won’t know this until we crash. Crashing typically is not a good way to learn unless you are young and the world is behaving. Even if you are young today, the world is seriously misbehaving and shows not the slightest indication that it is going into rehab.

So, what to do?

My sense is that you must act in whatever ways that are open to you and with only limited information on where your world is heading. You cannot not act.

It turns out that there are quite a number of actions available that should be effective in whatever world is coming along. Your own business situation will determine which of these are actually available to you.

Besides actions required for survival, you need to be doing things that strengthen your longer-term prospects. Even if you can’t predict the future, you can position your business for resilience and antifragility.

Resilience

There is not surprisingly a whole bunch of material out there on how to be resilient. Here is an example that I’ll not attribute in kindness to the author:

“Resilience helps businesses take continuity principles out of their silo and integrate business continuity with all disaster recovery and emergency preparedness initiatives for a stronger response to any threat.”

The essential message, though well hidden, is that you have to redesign your business so that it can survive and prosper even after taking some nasty hits.

Most major consulting firms offer business resilience assistance. You surely will be surprised to learn this. My quick perusal of their assistance offerings, which turned up such gems as “Implementation and assessment of Good Corporate Governance maturity”, suggests that the real answers lie elsewhere.

You can develop a set of “disruption” scenarios and estimate the probable impact of each one. Then you can figure out what to do to minimize the impact of each one. Viola, resilience (assuming you are able to implement the good ideas).

In practice, you should be addressing this routinely and making adjustments that improve resilience. You will never be 100% resilient, as some dinosaurs learned the hard way a while back, but you can protect your business from many non-catastrophic disruptions. Make this into an ongoing management process.

Antifragility

Nicholas Taleb in yet another of his hugely insightful and fascinating books introduced the concept of “antifragility” in 2012 oddly entitled “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”. This goes beyond resilience, which is largely defensive, to an offensive effort to make your business thrive under nasty happenings.

Amazon, although not likely a consequence of antifragile planning, has gained hugely from a set of events that are killing even the largest businesses. It is inherently antifragile it seems, although there may be events and situations that turn its antifragile strengths into fatal weaknesses. What if, for example, society breaks up into very small units that were characteristic of the Middle Ages?

My take on antifragile is that it is an extremely creative concept that is best left for execution to any pioneers who may still be active and without arrows.

Taleb’s Antifragile book (Allen Lane edition) is subtitled “How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand”. This seems a lot more appropriate to what we are dealing with today but I don’t believe that the answer for most of us is becoming antifragile.

It is much too difficult just to manage being what Taleb calls “robust”.

Accept and Adapt

The world has just changed big-time, and will probably keep changing for a good while more. It will not go back to anything resembling the past. I think that we have to accept this now as our reality and get on with adapting as best we can. 

This seems especially important for a business where management decisions can affect hundreds or thousands of people within and outside of the business. Big stakes here in getting the next steps right.

Easier said than done: What to do?

Dealing effectively with the current craziness is such a huge topic as well as one of great importance to virtually every business and its management. For this reason, subsequent posts will dig much more deeply into possible answers in practice.

Bottom Line:

Feelings of being overwhelmed today seem to be both natural and widespread. This may in fact be a good thing. It may motivate constructive action toward a business that is much more resistant to disruptions and that is able to cope with disruptions as opportunities.

Harvard Business Review has a recent article by Rebecca Knight on “How to Handle the Pressure of Being a Manager Right Now”. It is aimed at middle managers but tells a pretty broad story:

“The Covid-19 crisis has middle managers squeezed. You’ve had to take a pay-cut, lay off employees, and deliver bad news up and down the org chart. You’ve been working from home for weeks and feeling stressed because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. What can you do to stay focused and upbeat during this uncertain time? How can you learn to reframe the situation you’re facing? Who can you vent to? And, what can you do to recharge when most of your usual outlets aren’t available?”

bizwomen contributor Caitlin Mullen addresses concerns specific to women executives in “Mid-level managers were already stressed. Coronavirus made it worse”:

“Women who hold top executive positions are some of the least stressed in a company, while women in mid-level roles are more stressed than any of their colleagues. That’s according to a recent report from The Myers-Briggs company, which analyzed data from 1,182 women and 485 men relating to stress, gender and leadership. Researchers found those who sit at the top or bottom of an organization appear to be the least stressed.”

Psychology Today’s Mark Bolino looks at being stressed out from the viewpoint of employees and what a manager can do to help in “Managing Employee Stress and Anxiety During the Coronavirus”:

“In short, this is a calamitous time, and employees are under tremendous stress, both personally and professionally. For many, this stress is undoubtedly exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, which can make people feel even more isolated. What, then, can managers do to help workers navigate this difficult time?”

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