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The Wall Street Journal

Does Being Successful Mean Being Perfect?

By KAYLEEN SCHAEFER
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 26, 2006

Editor's Note: Work Therapy is a new online feature that answers readers' questions about managing workplace stress and anxiety. Send questions to worktherapy@wsj.com, and please indicate whether you would like your name associated with the question.

Q: I have a lot of workplace stress. Mostly I have too many projects going on at once, and I have a hard time delegating them to others.


A: The reason so many leaders have trouble giving up projects is because they've risen up the corporate ladder by doing everything themselves. If early in your career you had asked others to do your work, you might have been pegged as a lazy employee, not someone who deserved a promotion.

But now what likely has made you shine is at odds with what will make you successful. You have more projects than you can handle by yourself; you've outgrown your individual capacity. At this point, you have to redefine what you think your job is and start seeing yourself as a manager (or else spend the rest of your nights splattering takeout all over your keyboard).

"""""""""[cube]""""""""" WORK THERAPY
 
Anxious that you're underperforming? Angry that your boss is taking credit for your work? Worried that a junior co-worker is going to leapfrog ahead of you? Write to worktherapy@wsj.com with your workplace stresses for tips on how to cope. Please indicate if you would like your name associated with the question.

"A manager is a generalist, whose job and skill set it is to get the work done through other people," says Rodney Lowman, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego with an expertise in career assessment and development. "To the extent that you see your job as doing it, not getting others to do it, it becomes difficult to let go. If you're doing the job yourself, it's done at great personal cost."

Once you've come to terms with the fact that you'll be more effective the more work you can get off your desk, and are able release many of your projects, another reason to worry might crop up: How can you trust the person you ask to do the job?

First ask yourself, "Can anyone do this as well as I can?" The answer is "probably not; no one can do it as well as you." When you've got that out of the way, ask yourself, "Can anyone do it period?"

"It's the 80-20 rule," says Charles Lobitz, a psychologist in Denver who works with executives. "If they can do it at 80 percent of what you can, you've freed up your time. The key is to stop believing it has to be done as well. Being perfect isn't being successful."

IN THE LEAD
 
Carol Hymowitz on why smart executives shed some traditional tasks to focus on key areas. Click here.

When you've identified someone who can do the work, ask them to take on the task in a way that eliminates the stress-inducing compulsion to check on their progress as often as you check your BlackBerry. You can do this by being assertive and setting a deadline immediately. Tell the person: "This is what we need to do and this is when we need to do it by."

"Eliminate the ambiguity," says Frank Massino, a psychologist in New York who coaches executives. "State the expectation. If there's no deadline, there isn't clear accountability. If you're clear, concise, and have realistic expectations, people will follow directions." The key is knowing it's your job to boss them around in the first place.

Write to Kayleen Schaefer at worktherapy@wsj.com

 

 

 

Functioning Amid Dysfunction

How to Handle Petty Back-Stabbing and a Lack of Structure in the Office

By KAYLEEN SCHAEFER
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 1, 2006

Editor's Note: Work Therapy is an online feature that answers readers' questions about managing workplace stress and anxiety. Send questions to worktherapy@wsj.com, and please indicate whether you would like your name associated with the question.

* * *

Q: There isn't much of a hierarchy where I work, and the few people with recognized authority don't mediate conflicts. Because roles aren't clearly defined, there's a lot of anxiety about job performance, which results in people undercutting each other and stepping on each others' toes.

I love the institution where I work but hate the way it's run. I genuinely want to do my job well, but get so depressed about the dysfunction, petty back-biting, and the amount of time wasted over politics. How should I deal with this situation?

A: Like the co-worker who clips his fingernails in his cubicle, feedback is something we avoid at work. Many managers shy away from evaluating employees, just as their underlings tend to cower when they hear the words "performance review."

But without feedback, no one knows if they're doing a good job or a mediocre one. This can result in a bunch of insecure people creating a ruthless, gossip-choked atmosphere, not unlike the one on television's "Project Runway."

"What was set up to make them feel empowered is disempowering," says William Pollack, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, who also counsels companies on personnel matters. "It's better to have some kind of structure in place to give them feedback on their work. With highly motivated people, they want feedback on how they're performing."

This doesn't mean you should confront anyone with authority at your organization and demand that everyone be criticized (although you'd probably get an earful if you did). Instead, find a sympathetic co-worker. You're not seeking this person out to complain about the others' catty behavior (or so-and-so's dorky whale-printed pants). You're looking for an ally who will support your feeling that the organization should have more structure.

 

WORK THERAPY
 
Anxious that you're not doing a good job? Angry that your boss is taking credit for your work? Worried that a junior co-worker is going to leapfrog ahead of you? Write to worktherapy@wsj.com with your workplace stresses for tips on how to cope. Please indicate if you don't want to be identified.

"If people are getting together behind the water cooler and gossiping about each other, they can easily get together and talk about how the system isn't working for them," says Dr. Pollack. "Find a work buddy to talk to about how the system is upsetting you, not about someone else. This will make you feel emotionally more supported."

Then make an appointment with one of the people in your office who has some recognized authority, someone who you think won't be defensive or dismissive, to talk about how the workplace atmosphere is affecting you.

"It can be a verbal request," says Frank Massino, a psychologist in New York who coaches executives. "Say, 'I'd like sit down with you and talk about how we can pull the department together.' Give the person an advance idea about what you want to discuss. When it's more formally done, people tend to respond more seriously."

You can bring your supportive co-worker with you to the meeting, but that could create an undue sense of drama. Another option is to tell your superior that a co-worker shares your feelings and the supervisor might want to talk with your colleague, too.

Before you tell your superior what you're feeling, make it clear you came to her because you see her as a leader. You view her as someone who can alter things within the company. Not unlike the way Miami Heat saw Shaquille O'Neal. Then be direct about what you believe is going on and offer suggestions about what could be done to change it. Again, this isn't a gripe session.

"Say, 'This is what I perceive is happening. This is what I think we can do in the future and this is how it will benefit both of us,'" says Dr. Massino.

Hopefully, once this person hears how the lack of feedback and structure is turning your workplace into a soap opera, they'll want to do something about it. But there is always the chance they could dismiss your troubles. "Not my problem" is such a common sentiment that it's been slapped on T-shirts and bumper stickers.

"I would be a quack if I said it was always going to work," says Dr. Pollack. "You can't always change the organization. You can try and know you've done the most you can do. Then you can make a decision about whether it's good enough or if you'd rather be looking for another job."

This isn't a small workplace indignity you have to suffer through, like a Saturday shift. The way to feel good about your work is to be connected to it. If you never get any response about it, if no one seems to care what you do, it hampers genuine productivity.

"No one should work in a job where the expectations aren't clear and where you can't measure failure and exceptional successes," says Joseph L. Mancusi, president of a workplace consulting firm based in Sterling, Va. "You'll always be under stress."

Write to Kayleen Schaefer at worktherapy@wsj.com

 
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