Original Publication: The CEO Magazine
Original Publication Date: December 21, 2015

The Institute for Health and Human Potential conducted a survey for our  New York Times bestselling book, Performing Under Pressure, The Science of Doing More Your Best When it Matters Most (Crown Business, 2015), asking senior leaders about the impact on them and their teams when they were tasked to do more with less.

Here are just a few of the thousands of responses we received:

  • “We are having a hard time meeting customer timelines and when we do meet their timelines, the quality of the work is sometimes sub-par. Makes me feel a bit less proud of my work and our organization.”
  • “stressful times and sleepless nights”
  • “It creates gridlock. When overwhelmed I become less productive. “
  • “There’s pressure to cut (legal) compliance corners to get projects done faster. “
  • “Quality suffers. Not enough time to make well informed decisions or explore new ideas”
  • “I feel stressed out and exhausted and notice the same with co-workers.”
  • “We are losing customers to competitors who are willing to provide dedicated resources.
  • “At times, I’m so overwhelmed I feel immobilized to do anything; my enthusiasm and passion for work has been replaced with fatigue and burn out. “


Sound familiar? Everyone we speak with and work with – from the US Army to Fortune 500’s – are acutely feeling the pressure of doing more with less. What is becoming clear is that many organizations don’t fully understand how, at a senior level, a host of factors is exacerbating the problem, nor do they know what to do about it. One thing is certain, however: there is no better ‘future state’ where there will be an increase in resources or time that will come to the rescue. Instead, senior leaders are beginning to recognize that they need to provide their people with skills to better deal with this situation now. And, maybe as importantly, they need to learn these skills and insights themselves.

Task Trap

There’s a common trap, the task trap, that many senior leaders fall into, without knowing it, that exacerbates and feeds into the problem of too much to do and too little time.

Most managers and leaders are not aware that in any interaction they have with a direct report there are two things going on: task and relationship. There is the task that needs to get done for a project to move forward. Most managers, of course, understand this and do well at executing this. What many miss, especially when they are feeling the quantity of tasks build up, is that there is also a relationship that is being built (or not being built) at the same time. They get so focused on knocking the next task off the list and getting things done that they forget about building those relationships. They forget that this task might be an opportunity to build increased capability in their employees.

Why does this happen? We find it is because of one of three reasons:
1) a lack of awareness that this trap exists; or
2) leaders understand the trap exists but are simply overwhelmed with too much to do and too little time to act on it; or, finally,
3) that pressure and perfectionism work together to make leaders more risk averse and less trusting of their direct reports and consequently less able to delegate. This third reason might be the hardest to navigate but offers more opportunities to make a difference in dealing with this common challenge of organizational life.

Are you driven by a need to be perfect?

Many senior leaders feel the need to be perfect in everything they do. A great example is when they take on a new role or have new responsibilities, and they feel like they have to prove they deserve the job. They want to show their leader that they made a good choice in selecting them. They are on edge and feel like there is no option but to be perfect – both in terms of their own performance as well as that of their team.

On the surface, of course, this desire to be perfect is driven by a good intention: the leader wants to do well for the company, his or her team and their own career. The problem, however, occurs deeper down at the brain level where pressure and perfection affects the brain and behavior in powerful ways.

To understand this, we need to better understand pressure. One of the three characteristics of pressure is social appraisal – when we feel judged on an outcome (the other two characteristics are importance and uncertainty of the outcome). Feeling judged on an outcome or feeling compared to others causes cortisol to skyrocket in the brain making us more sensitive to failure or imperfection (another consequence of cortisol is that we are less able to take in new information, such as hearing feedback about how we are dealing with a pressure situation).

If we have a bit of perfectionism in us (and most senior leaders don’t get to senior jobs without a little perfectionism in them) and we feel the pressure of a new job, we become more sensitive to effects of social appraisal. Therefore, we start to see every project or a set-back as an indication of a fundamental flaw we have. Our perfectionism creates a situation where everything we do begins to be driven by an ongoing quest for reassurance. If you are a leader who experiences this, you are not alone. We see it in organizations of all kinds. As a senior leader there is no question that you are being scrutinized like never before.

As Julie Howard, the CEO of Navigant explained in our book, Performing Under Pressure, it can feel like you live in a fishbowl:

“There is always the spotlight—I feel like I need to say something witty or motivational at all events. When you are the CEO, there isn’t a meeting where there isn’t an expectation that you will lead the discussion, contribute in a more in¬tellectually significant way, or be the final decision maker in situations of uncertainty. Whether you like it or not that is the expectation that seems to come with this job.”

Can you start to see how feeling the need to be perfect can become a trap where you become more risk averse? Where you don’t want to take too much risk for fear of letting down this expectation Julie describes? This is why many leaders don’t use their direct reports in the way that best serves them. And it’s a big part of why many leaders get hyper-focused on executing tasks and miss the opportunity to build relationships and capability in their people.

Make yourself obsolete

If this experience is familiar to you, a good place to start is to rethink how you view your direct reports. For many senior leaders, when they’re risk averse from this mix of perfectionism and pressure, it manifests itself by not using their direct reports effectively. Instead, see your direct reports differently – as a group who you can ‘use’ to help you get your work done and as people who could replace you.

When I say ‘use’, I mean exactly that. In our culture, ‘using someone’ has a deeply negative connotation. For a senior leader, however, it is the lifeblood of effectiveness. When your direct reports can do more of your job, you’ll be more effective in the organization. Delegating the tasks frees you up to do more high value work. You can see new possibilities or opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise see because your head is not always down, getting things done. This may seem hard for many to get their head around, but it is consistently one of the most important things you can do when faced with too much to do with too little time.

The place to start is to think about trying to make yourself obsolete. This is difficult for many leaders because so much of their thoughts are driven by self-preservation, so the thought of making themselves obsolete is a challenge that can be hard to overcome. But if you start with this seemingly radical assumption, you develop a very powerful developmental bias with your direct reports and you start to see every situation, every task that needs to be done as an opportunity to build capability. When we work with senior leaders and they really embrace this idea, a complete shift takes place in how they manage. Their people respond because they feel like they are being developed like never before – and, indeed, they are.

This is what changes the calculus of too much to do and too little time. There is still much to do and limited resources and time, but these strategies will allow you to work on higher value, higher leverage activities and get more work done through your direct reports, developing them in new ways and increasing engagement.

None of this is possible, however, if you don’t see the effects of pressure on your brain and see how it can cause you to feel, even more acutely than usual, like you need to be perfect. So look closely at what you do in your pressure moments: are you taking over and trying to do everything yourself or are you relying on your direct reports? In a pressure moment, we see just how much we trust our direct reports and whether we are getting caught in the Task Trap. Until you commit to using tasks to build relationship and capability, you will forever be on the treadmill of too much to do and too little time. The choice really is yours.