In my last post, I talked about the tendency for change practitioners to extend past their capacity to meet commitments. The key to preventing the damaging implications of this is the thoughtful allocation of the time available, plus balancing resource expenditure with resource renewal. Think of this as creating a “commitment inventory.”
This is easier said than done. Some people find it helpful to visualize their commitments. For example, most of us can start with at least two circles—one for our personal lives and one for the time and resources allocated to facilitating changes within the organization(s) we serve.
It is vital to manage the intersection of these two boundaries. If the organization circle borrows too much from the personal circle over too long a period, we can grow to feel resentful about being “used,” lack of a personal sense of renewal, mounting tension at home, etc. Or, if the personal circle borrows too much from the organization circle over an extended time, we can falter on our professional commitments and jeopardize critical change projects and possibly our careers.
Of course, life is more complicated than this. Within each of these circles is another layer. Inside the organization circle are multiple commitments (projects to complete, tasks to perform, duties to fulfill, goals to attain, skills to develop, meetings to attend, emails to answer, etc.). If we examine the interior of our personal circles, we will also find more circles (family time, vacations, physical workouts, educational pursuits, health care issues, meditation/prayer/spiritual development, community/volunteer activities, etc.).
Managing the various commitment circles in our lives is fundamental to a sense of personal well-being and professional success. Even so, this is one of the biggest challenges facing change agents working on major endeavors.
Many of us take on these duties with inadequate preparation for properly managing commitment boundaries. Novices in our profession are particularly susceptible but even practitioners with many years of experience have difficulty consistently displaying the courage and discipline required for boundary management.
Understanding human behavior doesn’t make us immune to their implications. We know boundary management is vital to us feeling grounded and optimizing our effectiveness, and yet we struggle with balancing out all the demands pressing in on us.
Learn to Manage Your Individual Boundaries
Boundary management is not difficult to understand; just hard to consistently apply. The guidelines are actually very simple:
- …for a while, but not for extended periods without recalibrating expectations with those affected
- …but not if the loan will jeopardize the first circle’s realization
- …but if the loan is substantial, the time/personal resource must be paid back
Bottom line: Only you know where your boundaries actually are on any given day, and what percentage of your total available time and personal resources are already committed, so don’t expect others to be the protectors of your borders. Our duty as change practitioners is to creatively squeeze as much out of our capabilities as we possibly can without overextending ourselves on a sustained basis. Living life over the “red line” on a sustained basis is not only self-destructive, it puts the critically important changes we are responsible for at risk.
"The good fellow to everyone is a good friend to no one." ~Jewish Proverb
Transformational change generates an exhilarating, fast-paced environment where key people seek, and are often asked to take on, many demanding tasks. The sum of these tasks can sometimes push everyone past their capacity to meet commitments. The result is failure to deliver what was agreed to. This often means realization does not materialize, which is unacceptable for business-imperative initiatives.
This is no less true for us as professional change facilitators than it is for sponsors, targets, or advocates. In fact, given that our role is often to serve at the epicenter of an initiative’s activity, we are particularly vulnerable to over-promising what we can deliver.
Organizations usually aggressively pursue their change goals, so overextension of our commitments is bound to happen to some extent. When it does, there are only two ways to keep all our obligations:
Because of the pressure we are under (both internal and external practitioners) to meet all the change-related demands that come our way, there is a tendency to rely heavily on the second of these two options. This redistribution of our personal resources is an acceptable way out of unusual situations, but it won’t work as an ongoing lifestyle.
If we habitually draw from our reserves, the deficit affects our health, reasoning, emotions, and sense of inner peace. In addition, running on empty for extended periods jeopardizes the very initiatives we are working so hard to execute.
The extent of the harm done depends on the magnitude and duration of the overextension. What makes things worse for us, however, is that when this happens, we not only fall short of expectations, we lose credibility and even the ability to influence the very people we are trying to help.
As hazardous as it is, pushing beyond the edge of what it takes to deliver on our commitments is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, brief periods of stretching past previous limits, followed by intervals of time and resource replenishment, is actually an important part of how people expand their capacity. Time can’t be created (and therefore must be carefully managed), but physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources can be developed and enhanced.
The key to preventing the damaging implications of pushing ourselves too hard is the thoughtful allocation of the time available, plus balancing resource expenditure with resource renewal. Think of this as “boundary management.”
Know When to Say No
The various commitments we (and our clients) make to people during the implementation of change reflects the boundaries we establish. To deliver on a commitment, a certain amount of our available time and personal resources must be set aside for that purpose. Think of this allocation as a circle containing all the time and physical, intellectual, and emotional energy necessary to fully deliver on the promise that was made.
Life is filled with commitment circles that represent the sum of all the time and resources a person has access to at any given moment. The challenge is in forming the right circles, at the right time, and then protecting their boundaries.
Simple math tells us that too many commitment circles in our lives create dangerous deficits. The indications of this are more familiar than we’d like to admit:
No one intentionally sets out to overcommit and become exhausted and stressed. In fact, most of us don’t realize it has happened until after we’re in deep water. We suddenly become aware of being overwhelmed with more explicit and implicit change-related obligations than we can accomplish.
At the heart of the problem is an inability or unwillingness to keep an accurate inventory of all our commitments and their implications. Inherent in being a professional change facilitator is the need to meet the demands of multiple constituencies. It’s therefore easy to enter into so many overt agreements and unstated arrangements that at some point it’s overwhelming to even keep track of what‘s pledged to whom. Unfortunately, when we (and our clients) don’t keep track, we guarantee broken promises to others and, ultimately, to ourselves.
Even if we can remember all our commitments, when there are too many of them, it’s likely we’ll fail to deliver the substance and/or spirit of what we said we would do. By accepting more and more obligations, we diffuse and weaken our ability to attend to them all properly. In turn, this jeopardizes all our promises, not just the last one we made.
The assumption many practitioners hold is that the more often they say “yes,” the more value they provide to their organization or the organization they serve—but this is only true if all the “yeses” are reliably fulfilled. For every substantive “yes” there are several “nos” on which we must be prepared to stand firm, or the original commitment—and our personal credibility—will lose value.
It sounds easy enough, but in the midst of implementing critically important change, sponsors and agents find it a challenge to “just say no” to the latest problem, assignment, or question they are asked to address. Likewise, as practitioners, we find it hard to decline requests coming from our clients, regardless of how full our plate may already be.
More often than not, change agents for major initiatives are hard-charging Type-A personalities who want to serve, please, and succeed. Not only do we not want to say no to our bosses, peers, subordinates, or clients on general principle, we are often seduced by the nature of their request. The kinds of change projects we are involved in, the sorts of problems the organization is trying to solve, the relationships we have with the people we work with, and the dedication we feel toward customers/clients all conspire to make the next wave of change-related “to dos” hard to refuse.
It is difficult for most change practitioners to say no simply because we so badly want to say yes. The statement, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to do that and meet my other obligations,” is simple, but most of us have a hard time saying it. Here are some other acceptable ways to decline requests that exceed our capacity:
Despite the array of legitimate positions we can take when we feel we are overextending ourselves, many of us still find it extremely difficult to avoid taking on new commitments while executing critically important change projects. This, of course, is laudable unless the inability to say no results in one of the following:
As professional change facilitators, people expect us to stretch our capabilities beyond normal limits, but if we fail to attend to the realities of boundary limitations, we serve no one in the long run. It is our duty to ensure we deliver on promises made. Therefore, we must be prudent about pledging that something will be done and then give our all to fulfilling all commitments once they are made.