How Serving Leaders Relieve Stress at Work

“Are you serious about doing business with me?”

Diana was a real talent: a former Director of Development for another nonprofit organization who was working part-time these days while raising very young twins. We were lucky she was available.  Our nonprofit organization had a lot of grant proposals to write in a short span of time and could not do it all ourselves.  But here she was, fuming.

“Dennis, you introduced me to your Executive Director and everything appeared to go well. I sent her a proposal over a week ago. I’ve called and left voicemail messages. I’ve reached out to her by email. She’s just not calling me back. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

The perils of being too stressed

I knew the Executive Director wanted to work with this consultant, and that we were just on the edge of losing her. Never mind that it was 2010, in the depths of the Great Recession, and our anti-poverty agency was working harder than it ever had before. We had not treated this highly professional woman with the courtesy she deserved. It was up to me to win her back.

“Diana,” I said, “I know we have been really, really slow to respond to you, and I want to let you know that we do want to work with you. In fact, we need to work with you. It’s just that we’re so stressed out right now that we haven’t had the time or the clarity to do what would take the stress away. Please forgive us and be patient.”

Diana’s anger evaporated. She’d been there. I convinced the Executive Director to finish negotiating the contract…and then I personally worked with Diana until all the grant proposals were done.

Knowing what comes first

“Too stressed to do what would take the stress away.” Diana had been there. So have I and, I’ll guess, so have you. Whether it’s hiring outside help for the short term or setting up systems for the long term, we say to ourselves that we’ll get around to that…once we take care of today’s to-do list. Then the day ends, we still haven’t relieved the stress, and so it goes on and on.

There is a way out of this self-defeating cycle. It involves knowing what comes first.

Stephen Covey tells us that we can classify all the tasks we think of doing as either urgent or not urgent and as important or not important. “Urgent” means that if you don’t do it right away, you may not have the chance to do it later. “Important” means that it makes a big difference to your mission.

Most of us spend our time on things that are urgent (boxes I and III in the diagram), whether or not they are important.  Covey suggests we shift our priorities. We should make sure to spend more time in box II, taking care of things that may not be urgent right now but will make the biggest difference as time goes on.

At my organization, we knew that Diana was important. With her help, we had a chance to bring in funding we had never had before. That, in turn, would mean being able to help more people step out of poverty even as the country was sliding further in.

But we paid attention to the urgent things first: the report due tomorrow, the client knocking on the door today. As a result, we neglected Diana…until she became urgent. And we could have lost her altogether.

Is everything important?

I wish I could say it was easy to spend time on important things before they become urgent. It would be easy if the things that clamor for our attention right now were all distractions. It would also be easy if we could ignore the short-term items and know that a week or a year from now, they wouldn’t really seem that urgent at all. (And some won’t!)

Sometimes, though. we really do have a longer list of important things we have to do right now than we can handle. Sometimes, there will be real costs for letting any of them slide. We have to face that–and choose to pay the costs. Leadership includes making that choice.

If we want to be serving leaders, we have to go a step further and communicate with everyone who will be affected by our choices. Like Diana, they need to know they are not being ignored. Their work is not being depreciated. Their value is still intact.

Being honest enough to say, “We can’t do everything and this is what we’re going to do” will go a long way toward bringing people back, working together for the good of the whole.

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