John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“Feeling Overwhelmed” as Subtext for “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind”

John Gardner

I was recently in communication with a colleague who is a candidate for a senior leadership position. One of the many issues that colleagues on this particular campus are dealing with is their pervasive sense of “feeling overwhelmed.” My colleague asked me how I would respond to this. Of course I know this is very real. In a period of economic recession when millions of workers feel their only reward in an employment setting is simply keeping their jobs, with no raises, with high pressure demands for increased productivity, with an ever increasing array of technological devices impinging on every second of our formerly free consciousness, it is no wonder that people feel overwhelmed. I am reminded of what my favorite American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the late 1840’s: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

So what did I tell my friend when it was asked of me how would I respond to the question of addressing subordinates legitimate concerns of feeling overwhelmed? This was my reply:

I would want you to know that I hear this at virtually every place I visit or interact with. It is a sign of the larger culture. But I think it also masks—is a smokescreen—a metaphor for a larger set of feelings that go like this:

  •  We are given too much busy work to do
  • We are constantly being asked to do things for which there are no discernible results and/or we are not listened to and/or the project we were working on gets ignored by the decision makers and/or there are no rewards for me personally
  • The economy is so bad, there are no raises, there are no rewards for merit so why should I knock myself out

I find that there is less of this sentiment where:

  • Leaders convince people their work matters
  • Leaders persuade people they are being listened to
  • Leaders act on the input they get from work groups and projects
  • Leaders find ways to recognize and affirm people
  • Leaders find ways to reward merit
  • Leaders find other ways to improve morale

When people feel more satisfied and fulfilled in their work they are more willing to take on additional duties for the good of the cause. That’s your challenge: to create an overall culture of improved morale.

People always find time to do what matters most to them. They want to work very hard at things they care most about. The key is for leaders to find ways to make those alignments.

Bottom line: I don’t think it is demands for more work and more and harder work. Those are not the real issues. People would willingly do those things if other things were going right for them in the work environment. So it’s those “other things” you have got to address.

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