The Overwhelmed Manager

The Overwhelmed Manager

When work feels unbearable, providing support with an open heart and an listening ear may be all that is required

The Overwhelmed Manager
Amanda arrived harried, overwhelmed and very stressed out. She’d had not only a difficult day, but a difficult week and a difficult month with considerable overtime hours working on projects she wasn’t really enjoying. It was quickly apparent: Amanda needed help.

Her team was not coping well — one team member was leaving soon as her contract was ending, and another team member seemed very needy and unable to work independently, causing Amanda a lot of extra work. Two other team members were at odds with each other and having frequent petty disagreements. One team member was doing well, but Amanda didn’t want to put all of the important projects on one team member’s shoulders — that didn’t seem fair or right. So Amanda was picking up the slack on what should have been front-line work. Needless to say, she was overwhelmed.

I was amazed that Amanda had made it to our coaching session at all, but she assured me that she really needed this hour of sanity to focus on herself. She needed someone to confide in, but because her director was away she didn’t feel that she had anyone else in her corner. She didn’t want to confide in her one well-functioning employee, as that didn’t feel appropriate. She didn’t want to talk with another member of the director team, as that felt unwise. She didn’t want to talk with a management peer, as she didn’t feel that connected to any of them. And she didn’t want to burden her life partner — there were enough stresses going on at home and she didn’t want to add to that mess. Option after option fell and Amanda felt more and more alone.

Eventually, Amanda broke down and started sobbing. She apologized profusely. I provided her with tissues and a lot of space to experience whatever was going on for her. I patiently waited.

When clients are overwhelmed, they actually don’t need coaching. They need a lot of empathy and listening, and they don’t want to be alone. When they are with someone else, being overwhelmed can feel just a little bit more manageable, and where there is hope, there is a way forward.

Amanda started to talk with hope about her upcoming projects that could be potentially energizing: her supportive director who was soon returning from vacation, her new employee who would be starting in a few weeks, and a get-away with her partner that would provide them with much-needed time together. Eventually, Amanda started to feel better and more hopeful.

When employees are feeling overwhelmed, there is a tendency for managers to want to jump in and solve the problem. We tend to listen with our heads and think very logically. For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed, then you just have to take certain steps — reach out, ask for help, involve your team and make a list of things that need to get done. Prioritize. Push back. Just say “no” to new work. It’s all very rational, isn’t it?

And yet that’s not what people need when they are overwhelmed. They need your support and they need you to listen with your heart. They need you to feel with them — to show that you care by sharing your time, your concern and by being empathetic. So take the time… to listen… to be with your employee. Resist the urge to fix. Embrace the urge to care. Being overwhelmed is a difficult place to be. It’s more manageable with someone to talk to.

And Amanda? She’s in a better place now. Her vacation was lovely and she came back with a renewed enthusiasm for her upcoming projects. Her new employee is learning and growing. Her team still squabbles and her one employee is still needy, but Amanda feels that she can handle the situation better. It took time, tears and support. She’s stronger than she thinks. And so are you.


Lisa Sansom, an accomplished trainer and certified coach, offers professional services, from a basis of applied positive psychology, in leadership, interpersonal communications, change management, team dynamics and other areas of organizational effectiveness. www.lvsconsulting.com.

Originally published in volume 18 issue 3 of Your Workplace magazine.

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