Ambition is a terrific thing. It drives improvements, expands businesses and if applied appropriately, can advance a career. But what exactly determines “applied appropriately” when it comes to ambition in a business setting? Too much, and you can spread yourself or your staff too thin and increase your chances of experiencing burnout. Not enough, and you and your business can become stagnant and irrelevant. So, how do you classify the amount of ambition and work you take on board to optimize your outcomes? In answering this question, you should understand that the amount of work and ambition you can embrace will change over time, as health, environment and family conditions aren’t static. As they change, you need to adjust.
There are three categories to utilize when examining ambition and the work you produce or expect from your team members.
Level 1: The RUN Level (“Rolling”, Uncluttered, Normalized workflow)
Working in level one – RUN, is usually fun, assuming you like the work you are doing. At this level, you are producing good business results you are proud of, you have enough time to consider alternatives and review your output for quality before delivery, and you have time to celebrate your small victories.
The RUN Level doesn’t mean you have a light workload. Too little work, and boredom for you and your staff can set in. This can impact your productivity and the quality of your work. Boredom impacts your work business results more than most people realize.
Nor does the RUN level mean you are producing as much as you possibly can. A certain level of work can become something other than fun and enjoyable, though you and your team are still productive. That is the next level of workload.
Level 2: The PEAK Level (Productive, Energized, Alert and Kicking Goals)
Working in level 2 is exciting. You and your team are producing a substantial amount of work, you are working hard, and must keenly focus just to produce your needed results by the end of the day. You and your team aren’t at the point of being stressed or exhausted, but spending an extended time working at this level can push you and your team to that point.
The churn of workload in PEAK level that you are managing creates opportunities, but the potential for stress could turn those opportunities to risks, so must be managed carefully. While excitement is the primary emotion for the day, any discussion of additional work or tightened deadlines can trigger a pause, surfacing concern with your staff.
Level 3: The SHOC Level (Stressed, High Output, but Cracks Showing)
This level is well named. While potentially productive, stress takes the place of any sense of fun you might have had at work. You are moving from one thing to another, making poor diet choices on the run, and a dazed look is the default facial expression appearance at the workplace. You are producing all kinds of stuff but might not be checking your work like you usually do. In fact, you might be focusing on creating efficient short-cuts more than improving quality. The output might impress you, but this is a dangerous level to stay in very long. So, should you strive to never to be at this level? Not necessarily…consider all three levels holistically to discuss where you and your team should be working.
Managing the Overall Level of Work
In today’s business world, growth and product improvement are the order of the day. If you aren’t better next year (and maybe next month) than you are today, then you are getting behind. This tempts many leaders to try and push their teams into the SHOC workload level often (if not consistently) and maintain it for as long as possible. While that might create change and expand the business, it’s not sustainable. Employee turnover expenses, quality issues and managing tension in the workplace can replace any productive improvement with shocking speed.
The ideal situation is to create change and improvement while working at Level 1. People are engaged, passionate about the work they are producing, and compassionate for each other and the needs of your clients. This can be tricky however, as growth in employee numbers will eventually be needed to continue to improve and grow. Learning curves, and the activities of competitors make it virtually impossible to grow and improve your quality while consistently staying at Level 1.
So, changing levels is appropriate, for quantified and fully understood reasons, while purposefully returning to level 1 for periods of time to allow you and your team to recharge and reconnect with your existing and new products, your long-term business purpose and each other.
Now that these 3 workload level categories have been identified, this may be a good time to work with your team to describe what Level 1, 2 and 3 specifically “look like” in your environment. If people are aware of the three levels, they can better understand management expectations and adapt their behaviour and mindset accordingly. Most people are up for a “good challenge” if they understand the business purpose for the change in behaviour and also understand that it’s a temporary situation.
Ramping up workload from one level to the next should be done only after analysing the following:
- What specific benefit is the business getting from accepting and expecting this greater workload? After that objective is achieved, will staffing levels have to be increased to return to Level 1, or can we do that with existing staff?
- What specific indicators will you use to indicate the business has achieved the desired benefit from working at a higher level? Who will “make the call” to return to a level 1 workload?
- Who are your “benchmark people;” people that you need to work at peak efficiency, and cannot afford to “burn out” in pursuit of greater goals in the short term? What signs will you look for to determine if working at a higher level is taking its toll on those benchmark staff members?
- How will you celebrate the achievement of objectives set out when you lead your staff to work in level 2 or level 3 production levels, once we return to level 1?
Working at the PEAK Level can produce substantial change more quickly. The SHOC Level workload can do the same but poses greater risks to reputation and your personal welfare and that of your staff. Working at these greater levels can help you in the long term, by producing shorter term gains for customers or to keep ahead of the competition. However, using this approach to “get ahead” on an ongoing basis is a dangerous strategy. Managing your level of workload, and being mindful of your own health and productivity, and those of your teams, can help you leverage workload levels in an optimal manner.
Bob McGannon is the co-founder of Intelligent Disobedience Leadership, and a founding Advisor of True North: Your Business GPS. Both of these Australian based businesses help improve organisational leadership and foster growth in dynamic businesses, crossing many industries. You can reach Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bob@yourbusinessgps.com.au