Episode 10: Workload Capacity & Feeling Frustrated or Bored
Before the COVID-19 crisis, employees often struggled with workload capacity. Being over-capacity led to frustration. Being under-capacity led to boredom. Leaders and managers have the ability to the situation much worse, or much better. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, leaders need to be even more attuned to the workload capacity of their teams.
In this episode of Employee Connectedness, Unitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses balancing workload capacity to avoid feelings of frustration or boredom during the COVID-19 crisis with UofL researcher Dr. Brad Shuck.
In this conversation, they will discuss the unprecedented challenges of managing capacity in a pandemic. Leaders may have a tendency to micro-manage in this environment. That can lead to added stress and frustration, however. Leaders must find the balance of challenging an employee without overwhelming them. In addition, leadership during a pandemic requires additional nuance to calm and reassure employees. Organizations must adjust their leadership during times of crisis in order to balance their employees’ workload capacity and not frustrate or bore them.
Episode 10: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oY4NdwlqwAk
Employee Connectedness is live-streamed weekdays at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.
Employee Connectedness: Workload Capacity & Feeling Frustrated or Bored
Charley Miller 0:15
Good morning Brad Shuck, Dr. Brad Shuck and the University of Louisville. How are you?
Dr. Brad Shuck 0:21
I’m good. How about you this morning?
Charley Miller 0:23
I’m doing okay here. It’s Tuesday, April 14, 2020. We’re in the middle of the pandemic still. And I’m Charley Miller of Unitonomy. And I’m excited to get Brad today to get inside the head in all your years of research here to talk capacity: employee capacity and workload and everything that comes with that. How do you define capacity as an analogy?
Dr. Brad Shuck 0:55
So when I, when I teach class sometimes we will use the analogy of having like a, I’ve got this glass here. Right. And if I had, if you can imagine I had a second glass, and this glass was totally full. And the second glass was also completely full. And I asked you to pour the water from one glass into the other glass. That’s how I would define capacity: when we have reached our limit, emotionally, physically, socially, and we are at a point of fatigue, but not quite there yet, where things begin to spill over the sides, and we have a difficult time keeping up.
Charley Miller 1:37
Okay so cup overfloweth. What are the repercussions when someone is overwhelmed when it comes to work?
Dr. Brad Shuck 1:50
One more time, Charley you broke up just a little bit.
Charley Miller 1:53
What, what are the things to watch for when someone’s cup is overflowing, when they are at capacity?
Dr. Brad Shuck 2:00
Frustration. So what we see as the outcome of being at capacity is frustration, when, when people become the obstacle to the task. So think about that for a minute. I have to get some stuff done and there are people who are in my way taking up my time or taking up space on my calendar or using up resources emotionally or physically or whatever. And I just get really frustrated about that. We might think about this, we talked about being a parent or living alone during the pandemic over the last couple of episodes. And as a parent, folks might relate to, I’m just getting a couple of things down I’m banging out some emails I’m working on this project really quickly, and my little one comes up is like “hey dad Let’s go play” and I go, “well I don’t really have time to play today, or right now daddy’s working.” And then she goes away. I said, “Daddy needs 10 minutes” and so she might go away for what she thinks is 10 minutes but it’s really like 30 seconds and she comes back to me and she’s like, “Hey, are you ready to play yet?” And at that moment we can get really frustrated because our capacities are, or our resources are competing. And in one way we feel like we need to get something done. but there’s someone in my way. We, we see this outcome of frustration that happens more often when the pressure is really high in the end when leadership gets accelerated, and certainly during the COVID crisis. It’s been accelerated and leadership, the need to lead now in a different way is unprecedented.
What we see as the outcome of being at capacity is frustration, when people become the obstacle to the task.Dr. Brad Shuck
Charley Miller 3:44
Okay. And something else I want to talk about here is the opposite of too much to do, which is not enough. I remember my first job out of college, I worked for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. Kind of checking a bucket list item of wanting to work in baseball. I wish I could say I was the third baseman but I wasn’t. I was doing manual labor inside the stadium, just helping them figure out how to make money on game days, for lack of a better way of explaining that. But it was a really fun job. I got to be outside a lot and every day was a different day based on whatever was happening in the stadium. But you know what, they didn’t really know how to use me well. Here I am as a college graduate often doing manual labor and stuff but on top of some problem solving here and there. And I was bored. You know, and that was a different kind of frustration. And I remember, you know, I would do this like six months there and enjoyed it but I was, you know, making minimum wage. I was ready to move on to something more fulfilling. And I remember I really enjoyed the people I worked with I remember them saying as I left like, you know, “we’re probably not going to be able to replace you with another college graduate,” and I was like no.
So that’s just a quick story to say like there is another problem here, when people don’t have enough work that challenges them. That’s a problem I know from my game design background when you’re making a game. There’s something called the flow state that people try to design for. The idea of the flow state is trying to match challenge versus ability. You always want to make the challenge a little bit above someone’s ability so that they’re learning and they’re engaged through the difficulty of solving the game system. If you don’t have enough challenge, players get bored very quickly. If it’s too challenging, they get very frustrated. This sounds a lot like what you’re describing with capacity in the workplace.
There’s something called the flow state that people try to design for. The idea of the flow state is trying to match challenge versus ability. You always want to make the challenge a little bit above someone’s ability so that they’re learning and they’re engaged through the difficulty of solving the game system. If you don’t have enough challenges, players get bored very quickly. If it’s too challenging, they get very frustrated.Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy
Dr. Brad Shuck 5:27
Yeah, and it’s it’s some of the principles of engagement right. So when we don’t see meaning in something, we have a tendency to kind of back away from it, whether that’s game design or working, doing manual labor on an on a in a really cool place right like working for the San Francisco, San Francisco Giants. It’s cool, man, that’s a really cool thing. But it quickly lost its meaning as well, because you were underutilized in your ability to do work that you felt like was kind of meaningful. And so we tend, we tend to push away from that as well and there’s a that we get frustrated about that we get bored really really quickly, no doubt.
Charley Miller 6:03
Okay, so next question I have for you is what should an employee do when they’ve got a manager that’s doing what I call the pile-on? Which is, you come in on Monday, “hey, I need this and this and this week.” Okay great, you know, go crank this up. You come in Tuesday. “Oh, here, here are two more things I need you to do. Next thing you know, there’s this cadence of always just more and more and more. What, how should they manage that?
Dr. Brad Shuck 6:31
So there’s, there’s a distinction I think we need to make and that is the difference between leading, or managing now. And the difference between leading in a crisis or managing in a crisis and those those two things are a little bit different. The, it’s really easy to lead when things are going really well, right. I can just kind of show up couple meetings, I do this shake a couple hands, I’m doing great, thanks for all you do. But leading in a crisis requires a different skillset and that’s because it accelerates the need for really good leadership in a short amount of time. So we might think of like the way that the leadership need is compressed and that accelerates the growth of the need, but it diminishes, immediately diminishes a leader’s capacity. The reason for that is things begin to feel a little bit out of control. And so what I recommend, if, if things are, where you know we’re kind of having the pile-on effect here and that can happen. We might think of that as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.
But leading in a crisis requires a different skillset and that’s because it accelerates the need for really good leadership in a short amount of time. So we might think of the way that the leadership need is compressed and that accelerates the growth of the need, but it diminishes, immediately diminishes a leader’s capacity.Dr. Brad Shuck
So, I was talking with a colleague of mine who is a world-renowned epidemiologist. He’s an infectious disease doc here in town. He is the guy that I want to get my information from. And we were talking about historical leadership and are there times in history that, where we’ve had really great leaders who have led during crises and are there principles that they’ve used across that that we can now glean some insights from about that, about that kind of work? We talked a lot about trust, we talked a lot about routines, and we talked a lot about how we communicate in calm and predictable ways, and how we point folks to the mission, and then inspire. That’s when we talk about leading with people, and then inspiring to the task ,that’s exactly what we’re talking about. It is, as, as someone who is in the midst of this, even if you’re, you might take a family context for example right, we get some information it feels out of control. I want to control the things that I can control because that helps me feel comfortable. That’s how people start panic buying. Then right well “I’m gonna go buy all of the ramen noodles in the Kroger aisle” And then you look back on that you’re like, “why did I buy all the ramen noodles? Well in the moment, it helps you feel kind of in control and comfortable.
When we’re leaders and we’re leading organizations and when, when we’re changing the plans on a daily basis, that’s not building capacity for teams, that’s actually depleting the capacity. And so we have to resist the need to micro lead or micromanage. The way we do that is we plan for the long term. And we execute in the short term. So we might think about outcomes, right? So, we might think about “alright, well, what is it that I’m actually asking? What do we need to get done, what’s the goal here?” and then allowing our teams, trusting our teams to be able to go and do those things, and then coming back to us to make recommendations or present a plan or whatever that might be. But when we, when we micro lead or we micromanage, we’re depleting the emotional and the social capacity of our teams in that moment. And those things become cumulative over time so eventually work that was once really meaningful and exciting and something I was really excited about and sold out to doing, becomes kind of tiresome and meaningless, and eventually becomes very disengaged. Oh yeah.
But when…we micromanage, we’re depleting the emotional and the social capacity of our teams in that moment. And those things become cumulative over time, so eventually work that was once really meaningful and exciting and something I was really excited about… doing, becomes…tiresome and meaningless, and eventually, becomes very disengaged.Dr. Brad Shuck
Charley Miller 10:15
I want to plug a book that influenced me here Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan, which is really about how can leaders of organizations develop autonomy within the employee roles. Because if you do that well, you have a culture that scales, and you have a culture where people are high performance. Easier said than done. The book is a nice book that gives real advice on how to do it, and has been an influence on Unitonomy, obviously, our name is unity and autonomy. So autonomy is a big piece of what we think about. There’s this tension between micromanaging and providing autonomy. You provide too much autonomy, and then you have alignment problems, or maybe if you don’t apply your autonomy in the right way, you have alignment problems. If you micromanage too much where you’re just driving, driving, driving alignment and stay on top of everyone, you just have unhappy people, low morale. You have people leaving, you have low productivity. There is a balance between these two things. And making sure there is healthy guidance really good communication, putting structure around it, making sure people know their mission and purpose back to what you were saying, so that people can be empowered to make decisions and move quickly. And, again, like most of the things related to talking about collaboration culture, it’s always easier said than practiced. But hopefully people are listening to you and your research, Brad, so that there are some ideas here to take back and use and develop those leadership muscles and muscles that we all need as colleagues to be good collaborators and communicators.
There’s this tension between micromanaging and providing autonomy. You provide too much autonomy, and then you have alignment problems, or maybe if you don’t apply your autonomy in the right way, you have alignment problems. If you micromanage too much where you’re just driving, driving, driving alignment and stay on top of everyone, you just have unhappy people, low morale. You have people leaving, you have low productivity. There is a balance between these two things.Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy
Next thing I want to ask you about is this idea of something Martin Low says. Martin, often joins us on the show, with On Plane Consulting. I think this is not an original Martin quote but I tribute it to him because he’s the first person I’ve heard say “people join companies, but they leave managers.” Yeah, this, you know, this is a pre-pandemic thing here where you know you get really excited about this new job, what this company is about, the work that it’s going to provide only to get, you know, find months into it: “Wow, I’ve got a manager here that is not a great manager, they’re making life not great for me.” And you start looking for the next thing already, you know, your not there a year and you want to get out of there because your manager just doesn’t know what he or she’s really doing. And can’t really blame all these managers, most people are just not trained or set up for success as a manager, they’re just kind of thrown in that role and figuring the learn as they go. The only way anyone manager becomes a good manager is if that person had previously, a good manager and was able to learn from the practice of good management. It’s a bit haphazard, right? So I think a lot of what consultants can do is go in and help people become better managers. So, and that idea here of bad managers, what can employee do to just subtly give some feedback up the chain, specifically to that manager to, so that they can become a better manager. Any ideas?
Dr. Brad Shuck 13:24
Yeah, so I totally agree with Martin here, and the research would suggest that there’s about a 60% drop off from day one to the start of someone’s six month mark in a company, in terms of their levels of engagement. That’s pretty significant, right? That’s a…think about us: if I was disengaged or I was only engaged 40% of the time that I was working with the company or, or only engaged 40% of the time of my family and in any other realm of my life, that would not be a very successful mark of collaboration and productivity or anything like that. So I think Martin’s really right. The research is also pretty clear that managers make a huge difference here. Leaders make a big big difference and we’re using the word manager and leader pretty simultaneously here. And there’s distinctions between those and we can certainly get into those on a different show, but I want to make sure that we’re thinking about the people who are communicating and talking directly to our employee teams on a daily basis, so what do you what do you do about that?
The first thing is, we extend a little grace, and assuming the best goes a long way. I’ve been on a couple conference calls already this morning and thankfully I worked for terrific folks, I mean, the people who are in my chain of command, who are above me are elite of the elite they’re, they’re the best. We all can get really frustrated sometimes though, and so what do we do when that happens, one of them is to assume that we, that there’s somebody coming from the best place that they can right now. There are many, many things that are going on in our lives that that right now are just day to day unpredictable. That creates a little bit of chaos and it creates a little bit of that frustration. So if you see that you might you might give a little bit of grace.
The second thing is to check-in. How are you doing, what’s going on? What I find is sometimes leaders need a confidant, they need somebody that they can talk to that’s not going to react, is not going to go off the cliff, and that they’re going to keep that information confidential. So that someone has a board to bounce ideas off of.
The third is to manage up a little bit. And the way that I like to do that is I like from, from my teams that who are above me to know what I’ve got going on. And, and to send some bright spots. Right now, some bright spots are hard to find in organizations and so if you can find some bright spots to share that that would be a really good thing I would recommend that.
And then the fourth thing would be to just connect with your team and your, the community around you. I think this idea of predictable calm communication, I think routines and rhythms and rituals are really really important, and establishing those things from a personal standpoint.
But before, here’s one other piece of advice before I looked to my leader to give some advice up the chain of command: I would really encourage all of us to take a personal look on the things that we’re doing. Am I do I have these things in place, do I have, am I, communicating in a calm and predictable way? Am I focused in on my routines and my rituals? Am I doing what I’m asking other people to do? I think that’s a, that’s a really good introspective question we can think about and self-awareness. I heard somebody say the other day, two things: one, leadership historical models of leadership are built on experience. And so people will get into leadership positions because they have the experience to lead, they’ve done this before. Man, I don’t know anybody that’s led during a pandemic. I just don’t. Nobody here is really equipped for that in terms of experience, and so we’re all kind of flying by the day to day and by the seat of our pants in some ways.
And the other thing is, we have the hardware. Right. You and I, folks who are listening, the folks who may read this the transcript on the Unitonomy blog, man, we’ve got the hardware, we’ve got the mind to do this. We’ve got the heart to lead with empathy and compassion. That’s not the hardware, it’s the software. And so sometimes we’ve got to upgrade the software. We’re going to tweak the code in that software. We’ve got to retool in some really small ways they make a huge, huge difference in the way that our hardware gets used. And so for us, we’re good. The hardware is here. It really is working on the inside out, and then helping our teams be the best that they can.
Charley Miller 18:04
And when there’s a time for the literal software you can look at Unitonomy.com. I think a good place in is coming back to the glass you were talking about earlier that. There’s a famous Buddhist teaching, which is to say, when you hold up a glass of water for long enough, it becomes very heavy. You know, and you can run this experiment home pick up a glass of water try to hold it for five minutes, your arm will be starting to shake after five minutes right. But if you just put it down for 10 seconds and then pick it back up again, it’s light again. I think everyone when they feel overwhelmed–if it’s their work, capacity or if it’s even something else in life–if you can develop a habit of knowing how to put things down, get your mind off of it, and then come back to it, that alone will just bring down the tension and the frustrations you feel for you to manage. Any last thoughts on your side breath.
Dr. Brad Shuck 19:05
You know, I think the final thoughts: I continue to think about the people who go to work every day who are essential and the capacity that they’re at. We use it on interviews and on the, on TV and the internet–different stories. And man, I just, my heart goes out to those folks and I just pray over those folks that they’re gonna be okay and that that they’re they’ve got places where they can go and take a break for five to 10 minutes, to put that glass of water down. I can’t imagine. So you know I think about this idea of capacity and leadership and accelerating and the pressure and I just cannot shake the folks who are on the frontlines today, keeping our nation and our state rockin.
Charley Miller 19:45
Yeah. Love to all the medical workers around the world that saving people. But, oh my gosh, talk about capacity, they are obviously overwhelmed and puts everything in perspective for the rest of us. Yeah. All right, Brad. Thank you so much for this conversation that was awesome. And we’ll do this again tomorrow. Cheers. Bye. Thank you.