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Are You Making Your Job More Stressful?

Working in Higher Ed is stressful, especially for supervisors. There are pressures all around us – the administration, supervisors, faculty, students, parents, etc. We often feel like our time and our decisions are not our own. We think if we just didn’t have these external pressures and demands, our lives would be relatively stress free, but we don’t think about how our own talents, systems, and stories might be getting in our own way.

I know I’ve talked about stress and how our talents might be stressing us out in other podcast episodes, but Alicia and I just presented DIY Stress: How You're Making Your Job Even Harder at two conferences – MCCA (Missouri Community College Association) and the ASPA IV-West Regional Conference. So I wanted to break this topic down for you in a new way.

First thing’s first, chronic stress is bad for us. It’s not just theoretical bad, it negatively impacts our ability to make decisions, be creative, and prevents growth. That’s not even factoring in the negative impact it has on our health. Unmanaged stress absolutely makes us a worse supervisor. We have less patience, it takes us longer to do things, and we make short sighted decisions that often have to be fixed later. Stress is a physiological process. It isn’t something we can think our way out of. We need to do everything possible to reduce and manage our stress.

One way we often add stress to ourselves is with our talents. How? Let’s break it down. What do I mean when I say talent? Talent is a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. That “can be productively applied” is key. When we use our talents productively, or as Gallup puts it “the ability to consistently produce a positive outcome through near-perfect performance in a specific task,” they are showing up as a strength. But our talents can also show up as weaknesses. It’s strange to think the things we do best and come most naturally to us could work against us, but when we over or under use our talents or we don’t support them with the right mix of knowledge and skills they do just that. In other words, they are not being productively applied.

When our talents show up as weaknesses, it usually causes us more work, frustration, time, and energy. I’ve given some of these examples before, but I’ll try to mix it up. Folks who have Responsibility as a talent theme are just that – responsible. But often this sense of responsibility expands far beyond their actual responsibilities. Those are the people who constantly volunteer for things because other people haven’t volunteered to do something – or at least not fast enough. People with Responsibility often feel like they’re the responsible ones and they have to take on these things because if they don’t, who will. But it’s not just Responsibility that can act this way. Any talent theme can. Take Woo – or the ability to connect and talk to anyone at almost any time. These folks love talking to their employees, students, etc. As a result, they set up their offices to entertain guests and are great at keeping conversations going. Unfortunately, when left unchecked this often means people are in their offices all day long and they can’t get any work done. This means staying late, coming in early, or taking work home. These are just two examples, but think about how your talents are showing up for you. How are they adding work to your plate that wasn’t there before?

Another problem that adds stress to our plates are ineffective habits and systems. Habits are typically associated with people and are focused on one particular action. Systems are simply a set of connected things or devices that operate together. That could mean a set of habits that operate together for one person or departmental procedures or cultures that impact groups of people. For example, what’s your system for self-care (if you have one), your system for communicating with your team members, or your system for running meetings? If you work in admissions, what’s the system for contacting and keeping in touch with potential students? Or if you’re in res life, what’s the system for training your RA staff? It’s very possible your systems are getting in your own way.

As James Clear brilliantly states in his book, Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Let’s break that down. Everyone has goals, right? You have personal goals for work and life. Your team has goals for the group and individually. But simply having goals doesn’t get you where you need to go. If the systems you have for getting you there aren’t aligned with your goals or have unnecessary steps, you’re not going to achieve them OR you’re going to put extra energy and time into achieving them. For example, perhaps you have the goal of helping your team grow and develop professionally – in part to make them better at their jobs now and to prepare them for their next step. That’s a great goal. But what are the steps to making that happen? Do you meet with them regularly? Or do you mean to but never get meetings scheduled or have to cancel them? Do you discuss their job performance and their aspirations so you can develop an action plan? Or do you talk about their talents and how those talents can help them move forward? Do you see how important the system is to get you where you want to go?

The previous example is probably something that’s on most of your wish lists because there are seemingly so many fires to be put out or “more pressing matters” to deal with. But this is important for every goal we set whether it institutional or personal. Take retention. That’s probably the most important metric after enrollment. We all want to increase retention or at the very least not let it decrease, but what are you doing to get there? Are the things that you’re doing – the programs, the daily activities, the interactions you’re having with students – getting you there? Many of us are so busy, we don’t take the time to assess what we do and if it’s affective, so my guess is most of us don’t really know what’s working and what isn’t. The problem with that is that we keep trying to add things to our plate to move those numbers without even knowing what’s already working and what isn’t. That means we’re spinning our wheels doing things that have zero impact on the ultimate objective, and so is our team. We simply don’t have the resources – time, energy, personnel, budget – to do that anymore. You need to assess your habits and your systems to make sure they’re aligned with your goals.

Finally, there are our stories. Those are the things we believe to be true about the world, but in reality, may not be. Some of the stories we have, help us get to where we want to go and some get in our way. Just like with your habits and systems, you need to start questioning the stories you’ve taken for granted for so long. That includes asking things like where is this story taking me? Is this story productive – aka is it getting me where I want to go? And is this story even true? A great example here is “someone needs to do this and no one is stepping up, so I guess it has to be me.” Does it? Does anyone NEED to do _____? Sure, it may be helpful for students or the team, but what’s the worst-case scenario if no one did? Will anyone die? In most cases, no.

Now ironically, shortly after I wrote this I talked to an administrator at a college where two students did commit suicide earlier this semester, which you would think would make me take that last statement out. But if we’re being honest, multiple students being so stressed that they commit suicide is most likely a result of ineffective systems, which definitely needs to be assessed. That being said, sometimes there are no signs when someone is suicidal, so it’s not even a matter of us missing the signs. Even with all the support mechanisms in the world, sometimes students won’t accept help. It’s a terrible reality, but either way, what it does not mean is that somehow staff members are all now personally responsible for the lives of every student at their institution.

Realistically, all of our students could use more support – so could we – but in general if you’re going to college, you’re in a fairly privileged group already. This story somehow puts it on the believer that they are completely responsible for the welfare of every student or staff member on campus, including their mental health and life. Is that realistic? If everyone else stopped caring or doing their job, would you personally have to pick up the slack? Our stories make us believe that we’re obligated to do certain things that may not be in our best interest and are probably not even true. If we don’t start picking those apart and really assessing how they impact us and how we want to live our lives, we’re going to keep giving ourselves extra work that takes up valuable energy and time. In reality, what we’re responsible for is to do our best. Sometimes that best doesn’t accomplish everything everyone would like – realistic or not, but to ask more of ourselves simply sets us up for failure and more stress.

To sum up, what we’re really talking about is becoming more aware of things that are currently on our auto-pilot – how our talents show up, the habits and systems we use to get through the day, and the stories that motivate us to act. Looking at all of those things may seem undoable right now because you’re so stressed. That’s a valid response. But the problem is that leaving ourselves and our teams on these potentially ineffective and inefficient auto pilot settings just keeps us in a constant state of stress. Basically, nothing will change unless you change it. You don’t have to do everything at once, but pay attention to one thing that frustrates you and/or your team and start there. Often just fixing one thing can bring you more energy and motivate you to make other changes.

If you’re cool with just jumping into this process, that’s great. But if want support, we’ve just opened up registration for our spring Supervisor Strengths Institute. This is a mixed methods program if you will. We have 8 weeks of online content including homework, 9 group support and accountability calls, and 3 individual support and accountability calls. It’s all designed to help you become more confident, feel more empowered, and be less stressed as a supervisor. It starts on Tuesday, January 11th and runs until March 8th – hopefully just as your spring break hits. During the workshop we’ll help you begin the process of assessing your talents, systems, and stories, in addition to working through many other important supervisor issues. We’d love to see you there.

If you want more information just visit our website here:

If you’d prefer to consume this content in podcast format, you can listen to My Circus, My Monkeys on our website or through most of the major podcast hubs - Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon, TuneIn + Alexa, & Stitcher

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