Why are you so swamped?

Do you, like so many managers, believe that you have too much on your plate? If so, why do you think this is the case? Do you think, as do most managers to whom I’ve posed this question, that you’re swamped because of the demands of your jobs? If so, I hope you will keep an open mind as you read on.

Consider the possibility that your swamped-ness is not caused by forces external to you, but rather that it is the result of your approach to the work. Further, consider the possibility that, by doing what keeps you swamped, you remain stuck in managing and miss the opportunity to lead.

Here are some patterns I’ve seen over the years in the managers I’ve worked with. Do you recognize yourself in any of these patterns?


The Responder

You have always been rewarded by delivering what others need – clients, customers, bosses. The effect is, you can’t say no, or the equivalent of no. Perhaps you are afraid to let them down, or you are concerned you’ll be perceived as not up to the challenge. When you have five clients giving you five sets of “top-priority” tasks (as each of them sees it), then your head really starts to explode.

The Bottleneck

You have the ability to solve complex problems, better than anyone on your team. In fact, you have become the go-to person for complex problems. Whenever one of your reports encounters a challenge of this type, it needs to come to you. So you become the bottleneck. And, part of you doesn’t want to let go because you get gratification from being the person who can save the day.

The Expert

The only way you know how to lead is by being more expert than your reports. But this means that you need to inspect everything each of them does, to assure yourself that it is on track. As a result, if you have 6 direct reports, you feel like you are doing 6 jobs. And you are.

The Problem-Solver

The Problem-Solver is a recovering Expert. You want to empower others, so you try to delegate tasks to them, and you try to be hands-off. But when the task isn’t done “right” you have to parachute in and pick it up. You end up spending a lot of time fixing others’ mistakes, and you wonder whether it isn’t just easier to go back to doing it yourself.


What can you do to overcome these patterns?

If you’re a Responder…

  • Learn to say “no”. More importantly, change the meaning you attach to “no.” Here are some constructive ways to think about “no”. Probably you can come up with others.
“I don’t want to promise something I can’t deliver.”
“I want to make sure I can give your project the focus it deserves.”
“Here are the key dependencies you haven’t considered, and here are the risks of ignoring them.”
“Here’s a different way to get your need met, more quickly and more effectively.”
  • Develop prioritization criteria and articulate your rationale. Given your objectives, how will you determine what your priorities should be, and why? Then, initiate conversations with your clients/peers/boss to discuss your prioritization criteria, share the priority you have assigned to their projects and why, and test their acceptance of your plan. Ideally you will have all your stakeholders in the room together, so that any prioritization conflicts among them can be surfaced and addressed.
  • Change your self-talk. Think about all the ways that saying “no” can actually strengthen your relationship with those stakeholders, and build their respect for you, rather than damage it. Identify the downsides of their thinking of you as a “pair of hands” and the upsides of their thinking of you as a “strategic partner”.


If you’re a Bottleneck…

  • Every time you get pulled in to solve a complex problem, don’t just solve the problem. Make sure you also leave the others involved with an increased capability to solve a similar problem on their own the next time. Debrief the experience to ensure they have learned those lessons.
  • Acknowledge the satisfaction you get from being a “hero” and consider whether you can get that same satisfaction from the bigger challenge of growing the capability of a team.


If you’re an Expert or Problem-Solver…

  • Clarify all your expectations for a “good” outcome – both product and process – at the start. Often, things are done “wrong” because you have a picture in your head of “right” that you didn’t fully share with the other person.
  • Gather data from the person about what’s making it difficult for them to do this task – not for the purpose of judging them, but for the purpose of providing what they need (skills? resources? roadblocks they can’t navigate?).
  • Jointly identify checkpoints that will allow you to test progress, and make the other person responsible for keeping you posted.
  • Put pressure on your own definition of the right way to do something. Are there other ways of accomplishing it that aren’t wrong, just different? Which battles about how something should be done aren’t worth fighting?


To make these changes, to get “unstuck” from how you’re currently operating, you will need to more than just act differently. You will have to think differently. And as you open up your thinking, you also move from being a manager to being a leader.

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