Lay’s® potato chips, a crunchy little snack food once described as a vehicle for conveying salt and fat, had a playful commercial touting their irresistibility; a person might try to eat just one chip but could not possibly resist another. Their tagline was “Bet you can’t eat just one!”
I have encountered a few clients who similarly could not resist answering requests for help or taking on yet another project or task. While there are many variations on this habit, for the purposes of our conversation today I’m talking about the type of person who is people-oriented, a “helper” who typically has a soft heart.
For “helpers,” taking on another project is an emotional decision-making process with some blend of excitement, intrigue, desire, and maybe even an alleviation of guilt that gets sated (at least for a few minutes) when they say “Yes!” Meanwhile, their obligations are stacking up, sometimes literally, in their offices, on their desks, and in their inboxes. Imagine just how much more is stacked up inside a “helper’s” head! The clutter of obligations to fulfill or obligations unfilled has a direct impact on the leader’s well-being, as well as on those counting on his or her ability to perform.
Sometimes, changing this “Lay’s® potato chip” behavior is a simple solution. But it does take practice.
I work with these “helpers” on inserting a pause before that next irresistible chip (project or request) looms in their consciousness, before their automatic “yes.” That critical pause must be followed by some way of using logic and fact to assess the capacity to take on, follow through on, and fulfill existing commitments.
This is where we engage the resources in the immediate environment: the electronic calendar, the white board, the executive’s deputy or assistant to make that assessment. Some execs need to do this with greater frequency and regularity, aided by those brilliant workflow facilitators and managers all wrapped into one under the title of executive or administrative assistants.
We’re not trying to remove the emotional element. After all, as we learned in Descartes’ Error, we need emotion to be able to decide. A damaged brain with only logic available to it is incapable of making a decision. We are however, informing emotion with logic. We also want to assess when, despite a full load, the person would still want to say “yes.” Defining the exceptions is an important step! We are not automatons and there are juicy, exciting potential “yeses” that deserve full consideration.
In addition to the tactical, what strategic actions help?
- Get crystal clarity about what you are committed to. This takes some work. It can be your corporate/business commitments, including ones aligned with your unique leadership values. It can be a blend of your professional and personal commitments.
- After assessing your bandwidth via logic, can you say “yes” free and clear? Or is something short-changed? Do a “gut check” to make sure. A “no” said with well-considered respect for yourself is a most wonderfully, cleaner, more empowering response for those you want to serve.
- What are you telling yourself when that potato chip is within reach? Listen for thoughts that have been just outside your conscious awareness, for example, “He really needs my help” or “I’m the only one with that specialized knowledge.” That may or may not be true. Our need to help may be greater than the amount of help the individual actually needs. In fact, when you come with this stance it’s really not a very respectful one–you assume your cleverly cloaked superiority. As you catch those thoughts just outside your conscious mind and bring them into the light of day, you have an opportunity to re-assess and even change them.
Bet you can’t eat just one? I bet you can and it will result in higher quality leadership nourishment.
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