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"I Can't Step Away from Work" & Other Lies We Tell Ourselves as Leaders

"I Can't Step Away from Work" & Other Lies We Tell Ourselves as Leaders Blog Feature

Chris Duprey

Chief Learning Officer and Coach, 10+ Years in Business Development & Leadership, Former Infantry Officer

May 14th, 2019 min read

As I’ve transitioned into the role of an inbound leader in the civilian world, one of the hardest things I've come to encounter is taking time off.

When I say this I mean really taking time off, when I make myself completely unavailable to anyone and anything connected to work.

For me, I thought the problem was rather simple.

In my career in the military, there were only two times when I took leave -- what the military calls time off -- when the rest of my organization didn’t. And both of those instances occurred while I was deployed in Iraq in 2009.

The first was for my R&R (rest and recuperation) leave, which wasn’t very restful as my daughter was born five days before it  began. The second time was a few weeks later when I came home on emergency leave after the passing of my father.

Other than those two times, every other time I took leave over the course of eight-and-a-half years on active duty, the majority of the unit took it, too.

The military calls this "block leave" when all but a handful of folks take time off -- generally around the holidays and at some point in the summer.

Training calendars account for this, so nothing critical or even remotely important transpires during these periods.

So, as I made my way in the business world, I found it really hard to take time off when the organization was still going.

Important things were not going to stop -- they were going to continue, even while I was out.

At first, I thought my reluctance to take time off and truly disconnect was a direct result of my past experience.

It wasn’t until I started looking at colleagues and friends who were also having this issue that I came to realize it wasn’t something that only I struggled with.

My inability to step away from work as a leader wasn’t something that was solely a result of my past career in the military, though the past played a role.

Some might simply call all of this "FOMO" -- fear of missing out.

While I think this may be a part of it, as I reflected on my own issues with disconnecting I was given a great gift.

One of the IMPACTers I have the privilege to coach raised this exact issue, which allowed me to “do my thing.” To get curious and to help them find the answers to the questions they have within themselves.

While we may not be sitting across from one another in person or on video, hopefully, some of the ideas below will help you to correct this idea that you can’t disconnect, that you can’t take a break, a vacation.

I took the leap in March to completely disconnect -- not only from work but also from my daily life, when I went on retreat, which was the greatest gift I have ever given myself.

So let’s dig in.

Why Do We Feel We Can't Disconnect?

Fear. Really. That's it. 

It’s so simple and yet so real.

We are overcome by fear. We may not know it by this name, but as I looked into myself and as I worked with my colleague to understand why we couldn’t disconnect, fear was the common denominator.

Fear doesn’t always show its face. In some cases, it masks itself so that we don’t see it. Then there are times where it is clear as day.

As we look at this idea of not being able to disconnect, five unspoken anxieties are usually at the heart of why we can't break away from our work or ever hang up our leader cap:

  1. We don’t trust our team(s) or colleagues to get things done without us.
  2. We believe the team will be fine with us gone and are worried that others will see that maybe we aren’t as important as we think.
  3. No one else can make the decisions that we make and the need to make one of those decisions can occur at any time.
  4. What else are we going to do? Work is our life.
  5. We’re going to miss something.

Whether you identify with one of these or all five, there is no doubt that these are the many faces of fear in organizational leadership. Fear around our own sense of who we are and how important we are.

Now, think about how each one of these could manifest in your thinking:

  • “I can’t take time off or disconnect now, the team really needs me to help get this done…”
  • “If I don’t weigh in, how will that look…”
  • “These decisions are too important…”
  • “I don’t know how to relax…”
  • “I don’t want to miss anything…”

"What's True?"

This is a question I ask at IMPACT all the time when my folks come to me with a challenge. It is also a question I ask myself a lot.

So, what’s true for you? What parts of the above could you actually verify? Is it possible that the above fears or any other reasons that you feel you can’t disconnect are simply stories that you’re telling yourself?

As I think about each of the five fears from above, all of them are stories we are telling ourselves. I say that because unless we’ve stepped away and disconnected, we have no way of verifying that they are true.

For instance, if you're someone who relates deeply to a concern that your team can't function effectively without you, how do you know that if you've never given them the chance to prove otherwise? 

Imagine if all of these stories were true for a moment. What does that say about us as a leader?

The reality is we tell ourselves tons of stories throughout the day. Our stories become so real, that we see them as real. It is only when we allow ourselves to be focused on the present that we can create the space we need to ask ourselves this very simple question:

"What's true?"

When we ask this question, we are given the ability to see through our assumptions and our selfish views and realize that that is what they are. They are not verified truths we could videotape. 

They are nothing more than thoughts.

But, as they say, "the first step is admitting you have a problem."

In this case, we need to be truthful to ourselves about what stories we are telling ourselves that are based on fear. 

What Else You Need to Keep in Mind

So, we know how we need to combat our fears and our thoughts with respect to disconnecting, but we also should cover some of the reasons that these thoughts arise and how our actions may be causing them to arise with our teams.

Think about the last time your boss went on vacation.

Did they disconnect or did they respond to Slack, send emails, make themselves available for calls?

If you answered in the latter, then this could be a contributing factor to the above thoughts arising in your mind.

Now, think about when you’ve taken time off recently. Which were you, totally disconnected or were you still connected?

If you answered in the latter, think about the potential impacts that may be having on your team.

As leaders, whether we like it or not, we can't say, "Do as I say and not as I do," to our employees.

If you don't disconnect from work as you are supposed to when you take time-off, you are communicating they need to stay connected, as well, when they do the same. 

That's what makes this type of behavior so corrosive in organizations.

We are not the only ones who experience the negative consequences of our actions.

When we model this behavior to our people -- this "always available and involved" posture, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year -- we are setting our people up to fall into the same trap. 

"OK, What Should I Do Now?"

While you may not be able to control your boss, you can control yourself.

As leaders, we need to model positive behaviors. We need to be the example for our teams. To do this, we need to take care of ourselves and disconnect from time to time. This will actually help the organization in the long run, because your people will follow your lead.

This can be a challenge if you're worried you've already set a negative expectation around what "time off" really means with your team. But all you have to do is start with a conversation.

Get your team together and tell them, "Hey gang, we've been going about this all wrong. We're going to make some changes to what it means when we say someone is going to take time off. So, how do we make that happen?"

After that, schedule some time off for yourself. 

I promise, your team and your company will still be there (and in tact) when you return.

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