June 9, 2015

Avoid Constant Crisis Fatigue

When the demands you face outpace the resources you have available to address them you end up negotiating with yourself about which fire of the day you will put out while others are painfully neglected. I call this set of imperfect choices the manager’s dilemma because it is truly a no-win situation without an obvious solution. If you are responsible for managing people, projects, and priorities, then you are susceptible to this undermining experience.

One side effect of this overwhelmed and scattered place is a pattern of subtle, but damaging “leaks” that drain your already fragile time, energy, resources, and focus. One of the most common leaks is the side-effect from staying in catch-up mode for too long. I call it constant crisis fatigue.

When you are on top of your priorities and comfortably meeting the demands on your plate you are more likely to maintain your perspective, take time to consider the best option, and respond with proactive decisions that make the best of challenging circumstances.

However, when your margin of available bandwidth wanes and you fall precariously behind, the scramble can ignite the manager’s dilemma and force you into constant crisis mode. There are two tell-tale signs that constant crisis fatigue may be setting in:

  1. When you feel unable to influence decisions that affect your job—such as your schedule, assignments, workload, or the resources you need to do your work—your resilience fades; and
  2. When a project or assignment is extreme or chaotic, you expend constant energy to catch up, but you never quite get ahead. Without the effective management of your time, energy, resources, and focus, the “boom/bust” cycles lead to deep fatigue.

Together, the loss of resilience and compounding fatigue can distort your perspective on the challenge at hand and make its negative effects reach further and last longer than necessary. Over time, the effects from this way of thinking and working leave you feeling like there is truly no way out. What was easy is now difficult. What was enjoyable is now unsatisfying. What was just an inconvenient headache is now a crisis. What used to give you a sense of purpose now seems unimportant.

Once you’re stuck in this mindset, the flashpoint of an issue can easily send you into rapid-reaction mode where you stop thinking critically and lose sight of your capacity to influence the situation. In this tired mindset, every crisis has at least two phases. First, there is the disruptive event and the actual damage that it causes. Then there is the impact from the “reaction” to the event itself.

When you don’t respond effectively to the first phase, you inadvertently add collateral damage (because of your ineffective response) to the initial adversity. In other words, every crisis lasts longer and causes more damage than it needs to. This vicious, unsustainable cycle is a cause of manager disengagement and eventual burnout.

Rather than waiting for your series of compounding crisis moments to make the shifts you need, start now. To escape the damaging effects of constant crisis fatigue and address your urgent situations once and comprehensively, follow these steps to find a productive path through the challenge:

  • Gain a Higher Vantage Point to get a comprehensive, objective picture of the current situation;
  • Take Perspective so that the implications of the challenge are not unnecessarily magnified;
  • Focus Quickly on the Root Cause but take your time considering the best response; and
  • Act Decisively so that the choices you make remain efficient and free of second-guessing.

Together these successive actions allow you to sidestep defensive reactions because they encourage wider perspective-taking. So rather than quick-fixes and short-term solutions that only delay the inevitable, you can develop an effective, lasting response the first time.

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