“Exhaustion” has got to be one of Webster Dictionary’s words of the year so far. Endless Zoom calls, working from home now redefined as “working more, from home,” wondering if your boss wonders if you’re working hard enough from home. But as part of extensive research for my new book, Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization, I discovered a foul, but admittedly fascinating, evergreen problem that is increasingly contributing to our exhaustion.
I’ll explain, drawing from what psychology teaches us.
Odds are you wear many hats at work, more than you can keep track of. It requires constant micro-switching, the tiring practice of moving from one role to the other, from high-power roles to low-power roles and back, all day long. One minute you’re adopting a deferential stance with your boss, the next you switch into a more assertive mode with your direct reports, then into collaborative mode with your peers.
You might switch from moments where you’re experiencing tremendous autonomy and a sense of control to moments where you feel like a mere cog in a giant wheel with lots of responsibility but little authority and too little support. You make lots of decisions but maybe not the big, shaping ones. The range of issues and responsibilities you handle is ever broadening, creating still more micro-transitions.
Role switching fatigue is exacerbated when you have to perform in front of different levels of management or different functions within the same meeting or when you unexpectedly have to jump into one of your roles you weren’t mentally prepared to play.
The net result is exhaustion, frustration, and confusion about who you really are and what you should be spending your time doing, which is further exacerbated if you’re working in a poorly defined role with unclear expectations and uncertainty about how far your authority extends. And to cap it all off, all the micro-transitions that force you to be spread thin can leave you feeling that while you’re certainly busy, you’re uncertain of the impact you’re really having.
Eric Anicich of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business says the constant micro-transitions from frequent role changes are psychologically challenging to the point of detriment. For example, disengaging in a high deference task to engage in a high assertiveness task leads to even more stress, anxiety, and exhaustion, and a host of related physical problems like hypertension and heart disease.
How to reduce the negative impact of micro-transitions
While you can’t do much about all the hats you have to wear, you can mentally reframe how you view the act of having to wear them all. In my research with over 3,000 managers who wear many hats leading from the middle of their organization, I discovered that the most successful ones found inspirational ways to view their micro-switching-heavy role. Their different frame of mind created perspective that helped them deal with the stress and exhaustion of the constant role-transitions.
Here are some of the most powerful reframes I heard that you can apply to your role.
1. The micro-transitions you’re constantly making aren’t segmented, they’re integrated.
The 100 jobs you belong to add up to one vital job you’re uniquely suited to do well. Take pride in that and value the variety.
2. You work not in an organization, but an organism.
It requires fluidity and someone who can master the chemistry required, which very few can do. But you can, and will stand out from the rest in so doing.
3. You’re the ultimate catalyst from which progress pulses, the amplifier.
All the roles you play add up to the opportunity to have a HUGE impact.
4. You’re the keeper of the long and short-term flame, working on the business and in the business.
This is a unique privilege that only those who must lead up to a boss, down to their direct reports, and across to their teams and peers, get to experience.
5. You’re a lighthouse and a beacon, signaling threats and drawing all towards opportunities.
It’s in the nature of the many hats you must wear. Your energy effects so many others in so many ways.
Micro-transitions don’t have to mean macro-exhaustion. So, the next time you switch hats during your day, yet again, think of it as a privilege, not a problem.
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