Exploring the relationship between activity and impactOrganizational Leadership Challenges

The Hamster Wheel

Many of us have kept hamsters – really cute rodents who provide hours of entertainment with their antics and often serve valuable life lessons for children about taking care of other beings. There is one aspect of hamster life that is instructive about organizational life. In nearly every cage is a wheel upon which the hamster runs. The hamster gets on its wheel and runs to calm itself down. It has no illusions about getting anywhere.

The Organizational Parallel

The same often occurs in organizations. As the pressure mounts to meet new deadlines, launch new products or discover new ways to respond to customer and market demands, we give into using our sense of control to govern how we behave. In order to manage our anxiety, we look for ways to “keep busy.” We begin by defining the problems in front of us in line with our own competence. In this way we ensure we can do the things that we know, make us feel productive and probably best of all – provide a sense of control in the face of the immense pressure upon us.

The Gap between Intention and Impact

This is not to pass judgement about anyone’s intentions. The vast majority of people are doing the very best they can, every day. However, the challenge of continuously adapting to a changing world requires us to aspire to narrow the gap between our intentions and our impact. The challenge is to orient the work to purpose – what is the real point of what we are trying to accomplish?

Catching Ourselves

I often tell the story of the time I was visiting my parents and noticed my dad was showing signs of needing more help with the skills of daily living. Not prepared to talk to my dad about the possibility of both of us having to consider changing our relationship – me taking over more responsibility for him – and him allowing me to do so – I defined the problem as merely laundry and meal prep. That definition allowed me to stay busy doing his laundry and making his meals without making any progress against the harder challenge of providing more assistance than he had ever had or tolerated. It was until months later we as a family faced up to the reality that our parents needed us to “take over” the big stuff – living arrangements, driving and checkbooks – to keep them well and safe. We all did all we could to stay busy and avoid the hard stuff for which we were ill-prepared (having never had to make those kinds of changes before.)

An Opportunity to Reflect

As you reflect on the relationship between your level of “busy-ness” and your impact, we invite you to consider the following questions (this activity is best done with someone who can help you develop and hold some “perspective.”)

What are the key things you are trying to accomplish?

  • How do you measure progress? (It may not actually be ticking the boxes on your to–do list.)
  • Which of the activities do you suspect may be your “hamster wheel?”
  • How could you test your assumptions? If you are right, what other anxiety reduction techniques might you add that are less “diversionary?” (Exercise, planning time, vacation, delegation for example.)

Good luck. Check back next week for the next edition of “Food for Thought.” Lead on!