Chaos at Work? You Can Learn to Manage It

We seem to be surrounded by rah rah on the virtues of “smart” work and how to manage that finite resource called time. Yet there’s dangerous irony involved. While technology is supposed to make our lives simpler, billions of hours are wasted every day by people staring at their “smart” phones.

But that’s a subject for another day. A challenge that seems to be universal involves how to deal with workplace chaos. Regardless of good intentions, many people struggle with workday overload: too many emails, too many meetings, competing deadlines, office drama. Some can’t recall the last time they looked forward to Monday.

Mary Camuto feels your pain. She’s a leadership and organization development consultant who’s “been there.” And she offers some sound advice in her book Make the Most of Your Workday: Be More Productive, Engaged, and Satisfied As You Conquer the Chaos at Work.

The word “chaos” caught my attention. So I talked with Camuto to explore her thinking on how to regroup, reframe, and bounce back from common challenges in the workplace.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Your approach to sanity in the workplace makes good use of Stephen Covey’s model of the Circle of Influence versus the Circle of Concern. How can understanding that difference help someone deal with chaos at work?

Mary Camuto: We all need some control and influence over aspects of workday challenges and chaos. Covey’s model separates problems into three categories—our direct control, indirect control, or no control. Regardless of the problem category, we have a circle of influence. This is the exciting core of workday sanity.

Despite some serious workday concerns—a supervisor leaving; workload increasing; number of emails and meetings; priorities that keep changing—Stephen Covey’s work gives us hope because we can adopt a proactive mindset to help reduce our circle of concern. “What can I do about this?” is a great question. “What can I do to manage my worries about the new supervisor” or “Which tool could I propose to the team to reduce emails?” The larger our circle of influence, the greater chance for sanity.

Duncan: You write about negative drama on the job. What can people do to keep someone else’s drama from encroaching on their own peace of mind and productivity?

Camuto: First, recognize that drama can be seductive and even a distraction from “work.” Become aware of this and then assess how much time and energy you give over to being part of someone else’s drama—listening, giving your opinions and then spreading the drama story to others. We are human, after all, and some drama is part of working together. However, we need to recognize how much time we spend in workday drama. Keep an informal “drama log” similar to an interruption log. Figure out how much time you give to your own drama or someone else’s conflict.

Next, assess the impact of your drama participation. Ask yourself if someone’s drama is hurting the quality of your workday? Here’s what I mean: Is your own work focus/quality in jeopardy because of people popping in to vent, debrief, or ask for help? We make choices. You can be there for someone all the time but there is a cost. You may lose your own focus and positive energy and end up staying later at work as a result. Another important cost is that we may not be aware that we have formed negative beliefs from stories about other people. We need to balance being there for people with our own workday needs.

Duncan: What are some steps to increasing self-awareness, and what role does self-awareness play in a person’s satisfaction at work?

Camuto: Step 1. Know your mood, mindset, physical energy and emotional level as you get ready for your workday. Pay attention to your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, schedule, reactions, and enthusiasm. What are the day’s most important priorities, challenges (such as back-to-back meetings), and bright spots? What triggers do you know of so you can anticipate possible responses that will be in your best interests? Recognize your body language. Do you tap your foot when annoyed? Do you get short-tempered when hungry, or need to see a friendly face? Do you need a mindset change first thing in your workday? Even mindset checks throughout the day can be good to help us tap into our self-awareness.

Step 2. Ask for feedback. For example, how did you come across in the meeting? Did your tension show in your voice tone, body posture or responses to questions?

Step 3. Identify and regularly revisit both your short- and long-term needs, goals, and dreams. We can work toward fulfillment and even reframe setbacks as advantages if we are aware of what we want and where we want to go.

Duncan: For years there’s been a lot of talk about “work-life balance.” What does that really mean, and what questions should people ask themselves to honestly assess their own balance?

Camuto: This term means different things for different people and that is partly why it’s so challenging for organizations, leaders, and employees to make work-life balance a reality. What do individuals need for their engagement at work and happiness outside of work? Here are some sample guiding questions:

  • Am I giving enough time, energy and focus to my family, work, and myself at this point in my life?
  • Do I bring homework because it’s interesting or because I’m overloaded?
  • Does balance require leaving by 6 pm each day and not responding to texts and email 24 hours a day?
  • Is there a part of me that’s happy with the long work hours, promotion track, and adrenalin rush?
  • Does balance require working from home? How flexible does my work schedule really need to be?
  • What will traveling five days a week for six months mean for me and my family?

The challenge is determining the balance between what you need and want with your organization’s culture, values, expectations, rewards and policies. Like any relationship, sometimes we have a good match, often we compromise, and sometimes we decide to search for something different. People’s needs, motivations and desires change throughout their lives. This makes a regular work-life balance assessment helpful.

Duncan: Prioritizing work tasks is a common difficulty, especially in an unreasonable atmosphere where “everything is a priority.” How can people productively deal with such a challenge?

Camuto: There are many unreasonable work atmospheres out there and we have to remain calm. We must understand prioritization and communicate strategically. Here’s what I mean:

  1. Remain calm and steady so you can focus. This is first line of defense when facing “everything is a priority” thinking. The truth is that not everything is the highest priority. There are many priorities. Some may be urgent, but many are in reality less so.
  2. Prioritization requires both short- and long-term thinking—asking questions, posing alternatives, thinking about risks associated with trying to do too many things at once. I like matrix tools because they are visual, fast and can be used to pull people together for quick discussion. If everything needs to get done, ask to what level of quality, time and at what cost? Use the answers to the questions to prioritize.
  3. On a personal level, each person needs to be a confident, assertive and strategic communicator:
  • We can pilot your idea with the next class and here are the advantages versus the risks of redoing the current design.
  • I can put this current project on the back burner and start your new request right now.
  • Let’s do a quick assessment of both projects and deadlines.

Duncan: How can clarity of purpose help people deal with chaos at work?

Camuto: Consider purpose as a driving force and framework for satisfaction at work and in our personal lives. Let’s start at the workday level. To prioritize at work, I need to understand my role, goals, team and overall organization. That means when I’m confronted with multiple and conflicting priorities, I can use these to help me decide among pressing requests and demands. Is my purpose to always complete your work or to focus on my major tasks and responsibilities? This may lead me to the choice to turn down your incomplete deliverable so I can remain focused on my work.

Duncan: What’s a good way to “just say no” when the workload becomes unmanageable on the job?

Camuto: My best tip is to have a plan ready and say “no” before you reach your breaking point. Saying no is necessary at times for quality, focus, work-life balance, compliance and better work relationships.

Here are some language examples:

  • “I’ll be unable to attend the meeting and will follow-up with Joe so that I don’t miss anything.”
  • “I need to spend more time on the design since it is so complex and needs concentration; I’ll respond to your question this afternoon.”
  • “Your request has some risks. Here are your options, and I can refer to you to the safety manual for more detail behind the policy.”
  • “I can take this on next month or I can suggest some alternatives from another department.”
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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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