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Initiative, Fatigue, Overload and Anxiety – The New Corporate Disease

August 10, 2016 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

initiative

THE PROBLEM:

I once came across a seasoned and experienced operations manager called Rex who was tearing his hair out at the time because, in his words, “there is just no sense of urgency in this place … no one other than me has any get-up-and-go, any drive to change things and make them better.” In desperation, he spent the weekend in his garage making some signposts which he put up all over his plant. The words on each sign were the same: “SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH NOW?” Needless to say, the activity levels in his factory remain unchanged.

SINCE THEN, in organisational life generally, the pendulum has swung the other way. Instead of too little, there is now too much activity. Collective ease has given way to collect a frenzy. The problem is no longer that people in organisations are doing too little, it is that they are doing far too much, and all at the same time.

Employees are being called upon to constantly make changes and improvements in order to keep the organisation, if not in pole position, at least a participant in the race.

That ongoing change and continuous improvement is mandatory is totally understandable. The problem however is that people at all levels are being required to make all these changes and improvements while still doing their regular work, and often without any additional people to get the “improvement” work done. People are being assigned to projects (like SAP) with fewer people left to do the tasks which have not gone away. Cost-cutting and headcount reduction is happening without the concomitant curtailment in tasks.

The sum effect is what a client of mine aptly referred to as “Initiative Fatigue” (yet another in a long history of projects or initiatives), “Initiative Overload” (a multiplicity of them on the go at the same time), and “Initiative Anxiety” (anticipation of yet more coming).

Aside from the immense stress that all these initiatives generate, I really wonder whether they are any more effective than Rex’s sign in his factory.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing for maintenance of the status quo. I get it that continuous change is necessary not only to prosper, but simply to survive. However I argue that trying to improve on multiple fronts, all at the same time, is simply nuts. It reminds me of the question once posed: “Is it possible for a woman to be an amazing mother, wife, friend, lover and businesswoman?” The answer of course is “yes, but not all at the same time”.

THE SOLUTION:

The current response to the Initiative Disease is clearly not appropriate. Those who can (typically at the top/centre of the organisation) keep launching more initiatives, all well-intentioned, oblivious to the consequences. The recipients of the initiatives behave like victims. They gripe incessantly about what is being done to them but don’t speak up. They go through the motions in response to what is being asked, but often with little commitment. They try and do a little bit of many things with an overall sense of not really getting anywhere at all.

The appropriate medicine to at least ameliorate, if not remedy, the Initiative Disease is “testicular fortitude” by all parties. What this means for both the initiators of initiatives and the recipients of them is as follows.

Initiators: don’t stop the initiatives, but reduce the number of them (probably dramatically) and pace them in accordance with the resources (time and people) available to do them. A story I heard (admittedly second-hand) related to this was as follows.

Six months after being appointed CEO of an operating company (within a mega group of companies in the South African chemical industry), the CEO called a meeting of his executives. In preparation for the meeting, he asked each of them to send him a list of current functional initiatives (marketing and sales, operations, supply chain, etc); operating company initiatives; and group-wide initiatives. The list of projects and initiatives totalled 157. At the meeting he asked his executives: “So which one do you want to do?” He gave them two hours to come up with the answer, saying: “Personally, I don’t care. But we are going to do whichever one you choose and when it’s done, we will pick the next one.”

Setting clear priorities, which are stretching but achievable, takes guts. It means saying “no” or “yes but later”. Doing so is a key enabler of employee contribution – it is one of the key things that senior leaders are responsible for doing.

Recipients: don’t be a victim but rather manage the situation. There are ways of doing this (other than a categorical “F you, I am done with your initiatives”) which are clearly not career-limiting.

They include aligning or incorporating the initiative(s) with what you are doing anyway, delaying or at least slowing down the implementation due to external factors like customer imperatives, telling the centre/upper management what your needs really are, and asking them if they can help you … and so on.

As a manager on the receiving end of these initiatives you need to find the testicular fortitude to respond appropriately to the initiatives that come your way. Why? Because this is an integral part of performing your legitimate leadership role – which is setting up your people to succeed.

From experience, leaders who find the testicular fortitude to do this reap the benefits. As a result of their courage, they earn the trust, willingness and loyalty of their people. With that, the results come.

Wendy Lambourne
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