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Understaffed? Here's How to Deal with One of the Most Stressful Situations for a Manager
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Jane Scudder
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Without a doubt, one of the most stressful times for a leader is being tasked to deliver on a high-priority project, to turn around a situation like dropping revenue, or deliver for a high-profile client and to do so with an understaffed team. Maybe the team is understaffed because of recent departures that haven’t yet been filled. Or because the demand for work grew before the size of the team could catch up. Or maybe there was a reorganization and now there are fewer people to do the same amount — or more— work.

Whatever the reason for the understaffed situation, it’s a unique and challenging experience in the career of a team leader. It complicates everything, creates space for excuses if not managed properly, and can be a breeding ground for burnout and ultimately, resentment. But with the right approach and style, it can build camaraderie, offer opportunity, and set the stage for personal and professional growth.

Below are 6 ways leaders can help their teams avoid burnout and set everyone up for success in a stressful time of being understaffed.

1. Create Space for Open, Effective Communication

The first step I encourage my clients to do when their team is understaffed and they have a lot to deliver is to open communication lines. Now, pay attention because this next part is crucial: This cannot be lip service. To make it real the leader must address that she also feels the pressure and is not loving this situation. The leader must establish that this is not an ideal work environment that can and should be talked about. The leader must actually believe this approach and commit to it. If you’re not ready to do that, don’t make this statement yet, but rather work on how you can really offer this to your team.

2. Ask How You Can Help (and Actually Help)

Now that you have open communication lines you have a clear next step: You need to learn where your associates are feeling especially taxed and (and this one is also important) how you can specifically help. As a leader, you will need to dig in and possible work beyond your scope--including “down”--when your team is understaffed. This is not a “desperate times call for desperate measures” angle, but rather something you simply need to be prepared for and not too good for. At the same time, you shouldn’t just insert yourself into everything. You lead a team of competent, resourceful humans — ask them what they need from you during this time and then as a leader find and implement ways to offer that support.

  • Tip: Sometimes highly effective, top performers will simply tell you they can do it all. This might be true, but if an associate tells you there's nothing you can do to help, don't consider your management of this person done. Sometimes a worker can be so overwhelmed that it's actually more taxing to come up with ways to relieve stress. Don't force your team member's hand but observe her, and over time consider offering something you can do to ease her workload. See how she reacts and take your cue from there.

3. Don't Expect the Team to Do it All

Your team is competent and resourceful, but they are humans with limits. Part of being a leader is tuning into your team — their abilities, their needs, their realities — and managing the expectations others have of them. Doing so will help you grow a successful leader's skills.

  • Tip: If you are signing your team up for endless work you might be the problem and should explore that.

4. Create and Prioritize Time for General Check-Ins

It may feel counter-intuitive but making space for check-ins, even if that means taking from 20 minutes of time to email clients, is essential to avoid burning your team out. If you can’t offer this then try to tap resources for your teams like in-house or external coaches and mentors.

5. Make Goal Setting Fun

Your company likely has an annual goal-writing process and some smart goals you want to tackle. This is a performance management requirement that is anything but real, true career development goal writing. Make goal setting useful by encouraging your team to help set team goals as well as personal goals for manageable periods of time.

  • Tip: You can then use these time-periods as a leader to check-in with your team to see how things are going.

6. Clarify That the Understaffed Situation is Not the Norm

This depends on that open communication you established and is a key part of sustaining your team through a heavy workload while being understaffed. This is because a major concern of your team during this time of situation is likely, “Is this the new normal?” It is essential that you establish that it is not — or if it is that you work with your leadership to make it more sustainable. Otherwise, your team may dwindle to only you or become full of burnt out, resentful former top performers!

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Jane Scudder is a certified leadership, personal development, and career growth coach; she helps individuals and groups get unstuck. In addition to one-on-one coaching, she builds and leads original workshops and training programs and consults with organizations of various sizes. Find out more at janescudder.com

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