I am privileged to work with leaders throughout the world in a dozen different industries and professions. A very common theme is that their workload and job demands are never-ending.
Indeed, they feel as if there are no limits to what others expect from them – or what others will let them do.
I met with a client a while ago, using a video call. As I opened the link, I was surprised to see worry lines across the person’s face with sunken, almost hollow, eyes. And there was a look of discouragement and a weight I had not noticed before.
In our first moments together, I concentrated on checking in with the client, learning the challenges they faced and the issues confronting them each day. It was not surprising to hear that the client was working seven days a week – often 12 hours a day. Everyone from the boss to peers and direct reports seemed to be sapping time and energy from my client.
My client is one of the most capable professionals I have known and is deeply appreciated by colleagues. This had emerged from confidential interviews I had conducted as well as from a comprehensive Denison Leadership Development 360. In the early days of our engagement, my client told me about a commitment of being there for family, friends, the company, and the community. Themes were beginning to emerge.
Indeed, giving back to others was identified by my client as one of their Well-Developed* sides that had supported a personal and professional journey marked by this giving attribute. It had always supported the client’s intentions and spelled success and appreciation.
What my client came to realize in our conversation that day, though, was that there was a cost of over-using that Well-Developed capability, or of using it almost out of habit. Like a well-worn road, my client was staying on the same path, using the same approach that had always seemed to work, and they were now paying the price.
In our conversation that day, I asked, “Do you remember the children’s book by Shel Silverstein called “The Giving Tree?”
Not all questions with literary reference can trigger emotion for another, but I was glad this one did. The answer, “Yes, I used to read it to my kids.”
My question back, “And what lessons did you learn from the book?”
“That it’s important to have a generosity towards others, to always be kind and to give of yourself without hesitation,” was the answer, combined with a gentle smile and lightness to the words.
“I understand that, and it’s a beautiful thought indeed. And how much are you like that book?” I asked, spacing out my words.
A long pause and then “Well I’m the tree, that’s for sure. I give of myself all the time – it almost seems that there are no limits to what others will let me do for them. But in my case, it feels like I have constant demands and I have a compulsion to always be working.”
We explored the client’s dilemma a bit more, sorting out the difference between internal demands they personally felt and obligations they understood to have been imposed by others. And we spoke about the constant scope of work. In our conversation we explored building awareness about the situation rather than continuing on a path that they felt was draining them.
With awareness, my client began to realize that they had the ability to choose how they framed their situation.
“If others constantly let you do for them, how can they tell whether you have given too much of yourself?” I asked, looking the client directly in the eye.
“Well, I guess they can’t – it’s only me who can truly gauge when what I am doing is too much.”
“So, what choices do you have?” I asked.
“Well, I could say enough is enough and begin to set boundaries by myself. I can’t expect others to do that – even my boss.”
After the client spoke, I asked whether they had noticed how their voice softened and their cadence slowed, almost as if they were releasing pressure out of a container. A smile and a look of acknowledgement followed as the client said something so meaningful to them:
“I am the one who is deciding to give – it is not others who let me do too much – it is I who feels the obligations. I need to make choices and to set boundaries. I never want to stop being a giving person, but I need to know when I give too much.”
My client will always be a giver and even a can-do person. With a new awareness, though, they will work on the awareness of when it serves them and will be cognizant of the very real costs when they overuse that “Well-Developed” attribute.
Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – bostonexecutivecoaches.com – is an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC). He is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry.
* ”Well-Developed” is a term and concept we use that is taught at the Gestalt International Study Center which is fundamental to the approach used by Boston Executive Coaches
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