Workplace Wisdom

Workplace Drama 1: Overwhelmed and Overreacting

Last week’s post, Closing the Curtain on Employee Drama, gave an overview of why some employees chew on the workplace scenery and some thoughts about how you can shift their plotlines. This week’s headliner is “Valentina.”

Valentina believes she has to get everything right or the entire system and her whole career will be at risk. She needs to see herself as the most responsible party, so she has difficulty with the risks of delegation. She’s afraid things will blow up, so she takes it upon herself to tell everyone when they’re wrong. But after criticizing everyone, she’s left alone to handle things; she already has too much to do and no one to help her — and it has to be perfect.

The self-imposed pressure is overwhelming, so Valentina often doesn’t meet deadlines and then has to apologize and make excuses. And then, at the 11th hour, when things really are falling apart, Valentina goes running to her manager. At this point in the story, her repeated meltdowns are becoming both a production problem and a credibility problem for her department and her manager.

Lessen the Obsession

What should Valentina’s manager do for the sake of the work? And how can the manager help Valentina without getting sucked into the vortex of emotionalism that Valentina generates?

It’s not enough just to want Valentina to stop fretting and complaining, and it’s not enough — nor is it practical — for the manager to parachute in to save her whenever she’s made a mess of things, which has recently become an all-too-frequent occurrence.

Perfectionism and procrastination often go hand in hand. But just telling Valentina to get it together and produce — or to let things go so others can handle them — won’t necessarily change her behavior. She needs to believe that what she’s being asked to do is both possible and better — or more perfect — than what’s happening now.

But if the requirements for Valentina are firmly anchored within the department’s needs — and if management appeals to her higher level desires for belonging and commitment — it’s possible that she would obsess less over her own worries and frailties, and focus more on the work itself.

It’s Not About You, It’s About Us

Here’s what you could try with someone like Valentina. First, specify your overarching goals for the department. Let’s say that you want it to be perceived as credible and professional, and you can achieve that if you meet the business needs that are your department’s responsibility.

Then ask Valentina to think through her part of the action. Ask her questions like: Do you see where we’re all trying to go together? What’s your role in this? Can you lead yourself there? What help do you need from me/others to get this done?

Basically, you’re giving Valentina the chance to step up through a new, shared vision and therefore, a new approach to the work — without having to remediate the same old problem. You’ll probably have to give her suggestions for new behaviors to make her commitment real. For example:

  • Instead of making other people feel incompetent by criticizing them and taking their tasks away, try helping or teaching them.
  • Instead of being a bottleneck for others by holding all decisions yourself, show them the criteria they can use to make their own decisions.
  • Consider making plans and checklists with others so you can check on their outputs without micromanaging them.

In effect, you’ll be trying to alleviate Valentina’s belief that that her tasks are about her. Instead, help her realize that her tasks are happening in service to the needs of others: her colleagues or subordinates, her customers, and the business itself.

If Valentina stops feeling like she has to be a star standing all alone under a harsh spotlight, and recognizes her role as an important part of a tight ensemble of people who progress together, you may not have to do as much rescuing and fixing — and the show can go on.

Onward and upward,

LK

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