It’s finally spring in New England, so thoughts naturally turn to dread. That is how to limit or even eliminate it.
You know the kind I mean. A text message flashes up on your phone. You open your inbox. Someone sends you a calendar invitation on Outlook. Immediately your stomach sinks. Your face flushes, your heart speeds up. You groan. You think about but (usually) do not throw your phone across the room.
In some seasons of the year and of life, this reaction happens with greater frequency. Last year, when I succumbed to dread with alarming regularity, I set out to discover why I was feeling that way, and whether there was anything I could do about it.
I quickly realized that the situation called for an old fashioned “naming and framing” exercise. In order to reduce the level of dread, I needed to have a better handle on what was really causing it. I thought it was possible that information would allow me to re-frame some of the dread-inducing situations, or even better, stop them altogether by planning more intentionally.
I’d like to tell you I created spreadsheets, charts, graphs, and Venn diagrams but those who know me would quickly cry foul. What I did do was grab a yellow pad of paper and a pen and started a list. I labeled the columns with the mode of communication, the reason for the communication, the sender, and a response options.
I decided to focus on email and texts – tackling dread inducing meetings will have to be a second step. I determined that most of the dread came from the following situations:
It’s not clear why I received this email. The sender did not follow our protocol of carefully arranging recipients by “to” and “cc” so that those copied would know that they are just being kept in the loop, and need not take any action. This email creates extra work for me, since I must email the sender back to ascertain what he or she needs me to do. In the way of all things email, this usually requires two or three emails back and forth and even more annoyance. A quick way to lower the level of frustration in this case is to actually pick up the phone (I know). A 30 second call will establish roles and responsibilities, and you can use the opportunity to beg the person to follow the agreed upon email protocol.
There is something I should have done and did not do. We’ve all been there. You have to send a complicated and nuanced email but keep putting it off until it is too late. You didn’t write the material that you promised to finish weeks ago. You didn’t get the buy-in you needed for a project to succeed because the stakeholders were just too needy. And now you are being called out on it. Without question, the best strategy for preventing such failures is to ensure that they don’t happen in the first place. We use a method we call Step Zero to help us act in a more thoughtful way. Most importantly, when I catch myself procrastinating, I remember the pain of the last failure and try to act accordingly.
There is something the sender should have done and did not do. You have been asking for data for weeks. All you wanted was for that person to follow-up with a resident to let her know when her tree limb would be cut down. Someone is letting you down. Again. I do a lot of coaching on this issue – trying to encourage managers to delegate to staff in the office who can easily call residents to keep them updated about schedules. More recently, though, I’ve been working on coaching myself. Is the manager overloaded? How much have I contributed to the overload? Is there a way we can agree on how to triage the sheer volume of inquiries that the local government manager receives, but must rely on staff to answer? A little soul searching is in order for this one.
I know you’re busy, but can you review this 30-page grant today because it is due at 5:00? The easy answer to this one, of course, would be to say no, my time is valuable, and “A lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.” But we all know that as the head of our organizations, everyone’s emergency is actually our emergency. It the grant doesn’t go in, and a segment of our community is negatively impacted, blaming someone who works for us isn’t really an option. I am working on setting up what we used to call a “tickler file” (does anyone still say that?) listing due dates that I know about. It may help me work with managers to prioritize the requests that I send them if I can clearly see the deadlines on their schedules.
I can’t fix your problem. I know that you are absolutely correct and frustrated. I know that you pay a lot of money in taxes (really, I do). And there is no way for me to quickly or legally help you. So what can I do? I remember that many people just want to be heard. I try to take the time to hear them out and explain why what they are asking for is not possible. Perhaps it may be possible in the future with more study or process. Perhaps there is an alternative that might work. I tell myself to try to say yes to something.
Some people just push our buttons. I find it useful to have a small cache of mantras to drag out when these emails come through – even before I read them. The VeryKate version is something along the lines of “Remember that all she wants is to be safe, happy and healthy just like you do.” A more common mantra might be “I will do everything in my power to outlast you in this organization” or something even less charitable. We all have work to do.
Reply All. Enough said.
When the dread wave starts, this naming and framing exercise has helped lower my dread quotient. A little. Sort of. But I’ll take it.
I’d love to hear what triggers your dread reaction. What steps have you taken to try to lessen the reaction? Let’s practice!