Welcome to the three part series on Self-Leadership written and based on Julia Borger’s master thesis “Self-Leadership: Strategies to Avoid Overwhelm in Self-Organized Teams and Companies”.
In the first part, “Self-leadership: When Self-Organization Overwhelms” the groundwork to understanding overwhelm, how it is defined and what the challenges in self-organization are, was laid.
In the second part, “Self-Leadership: Factors Leading to Overwhelm”, we look at factors that lead to overwhelm in self-organized work contexts and how overwhelm manifests.
In this third and last part, “Self-Leadership: Tips to Avoid Overwhelm”, is dedicated to tips for employees and of course for companies on how to avoid overwhelm.
It Starts with the Individual
The ability to lead oneself (self-leadership) is a central competence in self-organization. Quantitative research has shown that various self-leadership factors are primarily responsible for overwhelm in self-organized work contexts.
Thus, all strategies for overcoming overwhelm must start with the individual. Companies have the opportunity to specifically support their employees in developing their self-leadership skills.
Furthermore, structural, external overstraining factors must be identified and specifically addressed.
Tips for Employees
Birta’s (2020) Self-Leadership represents a holistic approach to positive self-influence and thus also to dealing with overwhelm.
Figure 2: Self-Leadership Model according to Birta (2020)
On the physical level it is important to pay attention to the bio-chemical processes in the body:
Reduce stress through exercise and physical activity
The stress response directs energy into the muscles to prepare the body for a fight-or-flight response. Exercise helps to neutralize stress through the production of endorphins, for example, and to use up the energy accumulated in the muscles.
Promote regeneration through sleep
Sleep is the most important source of regeneration and recovery. Too little sleep as well as shifted chronobiology can have a negative impact on performance on the one hand and prevents sufficient regeneration from stress on the other. Sleep times should be chosen according to the individual chronobiology.
Ensure supply of necessary nutrients
Since stress results in a higher consumption of vitamins and nutrients, care must be taken to ensure the supply of essential nutrients at the cellular level.
Initiate relaxation response
The natural relaxation response can also be initiated with the help of meditation and other mindfulness exercises. It ensures that the physical damage caused by stress can be repaired and a state of inner balance can be restored in the body.
On the mental level it is important to positively influence the assessment of stress:
The ability to perceive one’s own thought content as well as behavioral patterns is, as mentioned above, an important basis for coping with stress and overwhelm. Questioning one’s own thoughts and behaviors enables new ways of thinking and acting, which help to avoid stress and overload. Unfavorable and unhealthy coping mechanisms can be recognized and overcome over time.
Becoming aware of personal stress amplifiers and actively influencing them
It is the personal stress amplifiers that determine whether or not a situation, event or stress will lead to a stress response. Often, it is unconscious thought patterns and negative beliefs that cause something to be perceived as an overload instead of a challenge, and that subconsciously stress the body and cause overwhelm. Awareness training plays a big role here as well, because only when negative self-talk is recognized and “heard” by an individual themself, can it be positively influenced by e.g. cognitive restructuring or other methods.
On an emotional level, positive feelings represent a bio-chemical counter-reaction to stress:
Recognizing and transforming reactive emotional patterns
Due to the “short circuit” in the brain, where the “thinking brain” is bypassed and the amygdala (limbic center) is directly triggered, individuals often react very reactively to stressful situations. Here, too, trained attention helps to recognize such situations and not to react reactively in these moments, but to take a break from thinking or to withdraw from the situation in order to act thoughtfully and considerately.
From the neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl (2017), who survived several concentration camps during the Nazi period, comes the following quote: “Between stimulus and reaction lies a space. In this space lies our power to choose our reaction. In our reaction lies our development and our freedom.”
Positive feelings generate independence from external influences
The ability to generate positive feelings regardless of circumstances can help change the bio-chemistry in the body and neutralize stress through production of, for example, the hormone oxytocin (Birta, 2020; Esch, 2014).
At the potential level, individuals need to develop a long-term awareness of what they enjoy and what gives them purpose, because unrealized potential is a source of stress and a possible reason for reduced performance. Meaningfulness and the associated sense of coherence go hand in hand with greater happiness, higher resilience, and health.
Tips for Companies
If self-organization is introduced without someone to guide people in developing their self-leadership competencies, this can lead to overwhelm. Younger people in particular seem to have more difficulties in this regard. Furthermore, a lack of social support, and with it a lack of trust and reduced psychological security in the workplace, is associated with higher rates of experiencing overwhelm.
The role of companies in this regard could be to provide support to their employees in the form of coaching, for example, to help them develop their self-leadership skills. In addition, the other overwhelming factors must also be considered and addressed. For example, if the transparency of information in the company includes the disclosure of business figures and the course of business, then employees must be supported in understanding this information correctly and in dealing with any fears associated with it. Otherwise, awareness of the economic pressures can lead to overwhelm.
This also applies to the other overwhelming factors. Either the company can eliminate the stressful situations or circumstances or support the employees in building up their self-leadership competencies so that these factors no longer lead to overwhelm for the people concerned.
About the Author
Julia Borger is an expert for self-leadership and empowerment. In the summer of 2021, she successfully completed her master’s degree with a thesis on the topic of “Overwhelm in Self-Organization”. This is how she discovered the topic of “self-leadership” to be a matter close to her heart.
Overwhelm has accompanied her for a long time and therefore it was like an enlightenment for her to understand the mechanisms behind it. She would like to pass on this knowledge to create awareness and enable transformation. It is her great desire to enable individuals and teams to come into their strength and to unfold their potential.