Savvy strategies for leaders to survive “traffic control days”

There are days, as a leader, when it feels like all we’re doing, all day long, is directing traffic.

Getting individuals unstuck by answering their questions, course-correcting projects by providing needed feedback, slowing some down who might be skipping a few steps and getting a little too far ahead.

And when that happens, it’s also usually when there’s an audit of some sort that suddenly pops up requiring a bunch of documentation “tomorrow” and the day is filled with meetings and you’re supposed to be working on the next strategic move.

So what are a few things that leaders can do to get through these “traffic control” days as best as possible?

Recognize that part of our role is to support the team

Whether we like it or not, it's part of our role to support the team. Being a leader does require a lot of energy for us to generate and dedicate that energy to guiding and supporting the team.

Unfortunately, it tends to happen in big clumps. It's always the days when you have a lot going on that everybody's stuck. And that's part of being a leader. It's part of making sure that things are continuing to go smoothly.

Of course, there is a distinction to be made between micromanaging and having individuals that feel that they are not empowered and that they are unable to do anything at all without needing your approval for every little thing. Which is different from the environment and culture that the leader has created – we hope – where a last pair of eyes is required because, for example, budget is necessary or it will have an impact on the client or it will change the way we do things or something like that. It’s important to recognize in which camp we are, because if you start recognizing that it's micromanagement, then that's a whole other issue to deal with. Here, I'm just talking about in the course of normal operations every day requirements that pop up that the leader must deal with, not because they're micromanaging, but just because it's the ultimate responsibility and they need to approve those things.

In those cases, it is our responsibility to show up for the team, and it's also our responsibility to understand the importance of us doing so to the fluidity of operations and keeping things moving. Because ultimately it can impact the clients, it can impact the level of service, it can impact lead generation.

There are so many aspects to it that may be necessary for the leader to be there and address. And the requests normally, assuming this is a healthy culture, are tied to something that is essential to the organization. Again, in the ideal scenario where it's not micromanagement and the team feels like they can't do anything because the leader's never going to be happy but rather the scenario where they feel empowered, if the team comes to you, it's because it's tied to something essential and it's tied to an element that would have such an impact that it's important for the leader to be involved at whatever stage it is.

So if we really embrace that and recognize that there are days where part of my role is to be that traffic controller and be just making sure that everything keeps moving and that people aren't stuck in various places and everything stops. Grab onto that mindset and concept on those days where it's just becoming a bit much. Try to remind yourself of that.

Get really clear on what absolutely must go out that day

Get really clear on what absolutely must go out that day because sometimes dates are really suggestions.

On those days where there's just so much going on, figure out what is truly central to that day and what could wait a little bit. Sometimes, there is wiggle room.

Our tendency is to knock it all out one after the other without necessarily thinking about priorities without necessarily thinking that this particular thing could wait a couple of hours, could wait until tomorrow when it's hopefully less frantic.

Try to think about whether there are dates associated with the request if they can be pushed back a little or whether it's related to something that's time sensitive.

And as the day goes on, try to keep track of the “urgent” requests where you can clearly rank them by impact. For myself, I normally have an app to keep all of my tasks but when it gets to be too much on those days, I keep a piece of paper next to me and I just write down all the things I need to direct. I’ll have “Answer this person” “Think about this thing” “Unblock this other person” “Review this document” and I'll do it manually because it's just easier for me to see. There's something about writing it down that just frees my mind. It just feels better. I keep the regular tasks in my app, and then I just write all of these urgent things on the side, on a piece of paper, where I can clearly see them, scratch them off, number them, renumber them. To me, it's the easiest way to deal with those things. Do what works for you, obviously, but I'm just sharing what works best for me as I’m prioritizing these things, especially if it's over a few days.

When these super crazy days start accumulating in a row, I want to be cautious about not always pushing back the same one poor person just because there's one thing after another and this person needs to wait. If their request really is something that is less of a priority, consider whether they can they somehow get involved in helping with some of the more urgent things. This could help them feel like they are actively contributing to whatever is happening. And if, for some reason, the project that they're working on is less of a priority given everything that's happening and they can't somehow be plugged in and help support the rush, try to let them know so that at least they're not just wondering whether you actually saw their request. Update them quickly in a way that doesn’t diminish their work.

Even if this person isn’t the right one to lend support, when you have your big list, think about whether someone who may be working on less of a priority can help with reviewing some of the things. Maybe somebody else has the skills and the level of experience and knowledge to be able to review something that seemingly is only for you. And sometimes there really is no one else. That's a reality. Sometimes, unfortunately, the leader is the only one who can look at these things, but if there is a chance that someone could lend a hand then that'd be great. Pass it along.

Also, if you have a really good executive assistant, they will spot that for you and they will spot what they can take on. They may even be able to say, “Hey, have you thought of so-and-so?” Or something like that. So if it's possible, on those days, if you can have a five- to ten-minute touchpoint with them just to be like: “Hey, this is what's going on with me today. Are you seeing anything I'm not seeing?” There are times when, as leaders, we tend to overestimate our level of importance and the necessity for us to do it all. For sure, there are unfortunately days where it is the case, but if it's not, usually a really good executive assistant can help you spot that.

Mind your mood

An increase in pressure likely will bring about a reduction in patience. Meaning, we’re likely to have a shorter fuse. Yes, I'm speaking from experience! Things that wouldn't normally bother you, will make you upset much more quickly. You will tend to be much more impatient. So be acutely aware of that to help avoid snapping at someone who really doesn't deserve to be treated that way – I am going to say most people don't deserve to be snapped at! So try to be mindful of your mood.

I know that, on those days, because of the stress levels, because they’re so high, because I'm trying to just unclear this traffic jam and get everybody on their way, on those days with that pressure, I am not as patient. And if somebody has an extra question or they don't understand what I'm saying, I do have a tendency to feel frustrated. And that’s not good. We cannot do that. We're leaders. We have to learn to control our emotions and self-regulate.

So if you're mindful of it, if you start recognizing that “today is one of those days”, remind yourself that you might be curt or you might have a shorter fuse, that will likely help in self-regulating those thoughts and emotions.

One of the things that I found really helpful is being professionally transparent. Let's say I have a meeting – and it happened recently – and it's one of those traffic control days where I'm just pulling my hair out. I intentionally didn't enter the meeting with my big aura of anger or frustration or stress. Instead, I was very aware of how I was feeling and how the day was going. I showed up at the meeting and of course, the first question is: “Hi, how are you?” And all I said was – in a very matter of fact, almost mocking tone – “Oh boy, I feel like my head is going to explode”. And then laughed a little bit. The person I was meeting with responded in a similar tone: “I know exactly how you feel. I'm having one of those days as well.” And then we both laughed.

In trying to detach ourselves from it so that we can survive it, we lightened the mood. And it was nice to be meeting with someone and being able to say that and the person felt the same way. And so sometimes we get to vent a little bit. Not the big, angry, changing all the energy venting, but just trying to just get a little bit of that steam out. Just release the pressure valve a touch.

Of course, sometimes it's not appropriate at all, but sometimes it is. And sometimes you just need to jump right in and knock stuff out and that's totally cool. But even in those times, I would say take a moment to breathe. And that's also something that I do frequently. If I arrive in a meeting feeling that way, and I might say: “You know what? I'm going to take a breath.” And then I take a deep inhale and a slow exhale. Even that helps. And sometimes, we all do it together if we're having one of those days.

Again, just try to be mindful and think: “Okay, we'll get through this. We always get through them somehow. We will get through this one too.”

There will be days like this…

Let’s face it, days when we feel like we’re directing traffic all day are exhausting.

There is a ton of energy that is generated by us going out into the world to support others.

That will leave us tired and highly likely pretty grumpy. At least it does in my case! It feels like I haven’t advanced the “important stuff”. But it is. It’s the details that contribute to accomplishing the implementation part of the bigger picture. It really helps to remind ourselves of that.

Also, let’s do everyone a favor and take a moment for ourselves to get rid of some of that energy before showing up for others. Listen to your favorite song a few times, belting it out. Find a private spot to shake it all out. Take some deep breaths of fresh air.

Let go of the day. That one’s done. Tomorrow will be a new one. Clean slate. And show up hopeful that this one will be better.


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