Feeling Overwhelmed? Nine ideas for managing both the outside world and the world inside your head with confidence

7 minute read

By Jane Hardy, C.E.C.; P.C.C.

At a time when conversations about mental health are actively encouraged, today’s leaders need to pay attention to their own mental health as well as to that of their staff. Author Anais Nin has said, “We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” So we need to become skilled at distinguishing what is an observable fact (the outside world) and the beliefs and assumptions that influence our reaction to what we see (the inside world).

I was a federal public service executive for 20 years, six of them as an Assistant Deputy Minister. I have now been an executive coach for nine years. Based on my leadership experience and in my coaching practice, I see that most of the challenges leaders face are remarkably similar. How each leader responds, however, is unique. For example, a client I was working with recently wanted to explore why she had such a difficult time in a higher level acting executive assignment. She felt she was not well supported or recognized. We concluded that what the organization thought was a gift – a professional development opportunity – she interpreted as being asked to make a personal sacrifice. In another instance, an executive client was struggling with what he perceived as a very demanding, bullying boss. According to him, she was yelling at him about 40% of the time. He felt he could not raise the subject with her because her behaviour had gone on too long and he thought it would make matters worse. He believed the treatment he received was a form of abuse. Eventually, he found another job.

In both instances, the reactions and decisions of my clients were heavily influenced by how they interpreted events, not just by the events themselves. If we are to make good decisions about how we behave in difficult situations, we need to become much better at managing both our outside and inside worlds and knowing the difference.

Managing the Outside World: Five Ideas

  • Strengthen your leadership skills – the more skilled you become, the easier it is to lead
  • Develop a clear vision for what you want your team to achieve, plan ahead and communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Say “Tell me what you think we should do” much more often
  • Become excellent at conflict management
  • Do not let vacant positions stay vacant long

The public service leadership competencies are a good starting point. Develop your own leadership learning plan. Reading, training, coaching, practice and feedback are all readily available tools to support your learning. Make your professional development a priority.

A word about feedback: not all feedback is valuable. You need to consider the source and the motive. If the source is respected, knows your work, and the motive is generous and intended for your professional development, then it is worth its weight in gold. If the source does not know much about your work, has limited experience in the challenges you face and is trying to destabilize you or undermine your confidence, then dismiss it. I have no doubt that you do, and will, know the difference.

Often, I hear from my clients that they are just not sure what the boss wants. Either the boss has not communicated the direction or the boss keeps changing priorities. Having a vision of where you want to take your team can also give them freedom to take initiative now that they know what they are working toward.

One of the challenges leaders can face is having over-dependent teams. Staff can’t do anything without asking the boss what to do. Human beings are addicted to problem solving because it creates endorphins when we come up with solutions – the ah-ha! moment. That is why we are all inveterate advice-givers. But if, as a leader, you are having all the ah-ha! moments, your team is not. And when they are not, you limit their professional development and their confidence. If you have a confident team, they will need less hand-holding. This leaves you free to do your real job which is leading.

Conflict management is an essential leadership skill. Organizations are made up of people. People have misunderstandings. If left to fester, small conflicts can become toxic. A large part of my coaching practice is about how to have difficult conversations, with the boss, with peers, with staff and with stakeholders. Very often, people complain about a demanding boss, or an uncooperative employee. When I ask whether they have talked to the person about it, the answer is almost always a sheepish no, especially with bosses. It is also interesting that when we explore what makes these conversations so difficult, people have generally begun to demonize the other person. It is as though he or she is barely human. I suppose it is tough to talk to a demon. However, if you approach people with respect, really seek to understand their point of view and ask for what you need specifically, chances are the message will be heard. Also, do it early when the problems are small.

You have just lost two of your best direct reports. You are now doing their jobs as well as your own, or working with actors who are still learning. You “do not have time to staff”. Staffing is a difficult, time-consuming business. The temptation is to take the nearest available person or delay doing the work. Don’t. Your hiring mistake will be someone else’s difficult employee down the road. Your delay will jeopardize your deliverables and put pressure on your existing staff. As they say, just do it.

Managing the Inside World: Four Ideas

  • Get to know your personal saboteurs
  • Maintain your composure
  • Change your questions
  • Turn all your adult relationships into equal partnerships deserving of respect and understanding

In his book Positive Intelligence, (2012) Shirzad Chamine identifies ten saboteurs that people acquire as survival strategies from childhood. He says the saboteurs motivate through negative emotions, such as fear. The stress they create is self-generated. You think you cannot be successful without them. The opposite is true. The top saboteur is the Judger. The Judger is responsible for the blame game. The Judger blames the self, others or the situation. The Judger is not a problem solver. The other nine saboteurs support the Judger. They are: Controller, Hyper Achiever, Hyper Rational, Hyper Vigilant, Pleaser, Restless, Stickler, Victim and Avoider. Just by reading the list, you can probably identify one or two of your own saboteurs. The key here is to become aware of ways of thinking that are destructive and replace this inner dialogue with more enabling and productive thinking.

We all face anxiety and stress. Losing your composure just makes people think you are unstable and untrustworthy. It scares your staff and makes them lose faith in themselves and you. It does not make them more careful or smarter. Most people who have composure problems have three to five repeating triggers. Criticism. Loss of control. An enemy. Being surprised. Authority. Not being able to say no. One solution is to write down the last 25 times when you lost your composure. Group them into categories. Ask yourself why these are a problem. Identify and rehearse a more mature response. When in doubt, breathe. The key is to be self-aware. And if you do lose it, apologize. Sincerely.

How we respond to life’s challenges often depends on the questions we ask ourselves. Marilee Adams, in her book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life(2009), talks about two paths: the Judger (yes, that person again) and the Learner. The Judger asks questions such as:

  • Why am I a failure?
  • Why are they so stupid?
  • Why bother?

The Learner, on the other hand, asks these questions:

  • What are the facts?
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • What are they thinking, feeling, wanting?
  • What are my choices?
  • What is best to do?

We are all recovering Judgers. But we need to get much better at following the path of the Learner. It also helps with maintaining composure.

Bosses do not like extreme deference. Peers hate self-promoting competitors. And staff despise controlling autocrats. You gain trust and cooperation by treating people at all levels as valued partners. The commissionaire at the security desk and the cashier in the grocery store are not furniture. People play many different roles in organizations. Whatever role they play, treat people as a valued resource and partner because they are. You probably do this now, but it is good to check in with yourself once in a while.

As leaders, one of the best ways we can promote a healthy work environment is to get better at managing both the real world challenges we face and how we react to them. The better we get, the more we can model this behaviour for others.


Chamine, Shirzad, 2012, Positive Intelligence, Austin TX, Greenleaf Book Group Press

Adams, Marilee, 2009, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, San Francisco CA, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.


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