A while back I wrote a post around something I call Spectrum Mapping, which is a simple tool that you can use to find balance in your leadership style. One common spectrum is the Spectrum of Functioning, in which we tend to either over- or under-function. Both extremes are quite common amongst the leaders I work with, and both have significant costs. If you find yourself micromanaging, feeling burned out, wondering why others aren’t doing their share, going through the motions, or don’t have work-life balance, chances are you are either over- or under-functioning.

The Costs of Over- and Under-Functioning

When we over-function, we take on and do too much. Too much responsibility, too much work, too much accountability. Sometimes we over-function because we think we need to pick up the slack. Sometimes we do it because we won’t say no. Sometimes we do it because we don’t trust others to follow through. Whatever the reason, the symptoms and costs of over-functioning include things like overwhelm and burnout, feeling like a martyr, thinking that everything is on our shoulders and that the world will fall apart without us, worrying if we’ll get blamed if something goes wrong, and much more. If you find yourself doing too much (or thinking that others aren’t doing enough), you’re probably over-functioning.

As expected, under-functioning means doing the minimum, or even less than the minimum. We leave things to others to handle, avoid taking risks, procrastinate, do just enough to get by, distract ourselves, or check out. Under-functioning can be a symptom of apathy, lack of feeling challenged or engaged, suppressed frustration, sense of overwhelm, or fear of failure. If you find yourself avoiding work, going through the motions, or doing as little as possible to get by, you’re probably under-functioning.

Both polarities create an imbalance that results in ineffective functioning for the individual. Stress rises, results suffer, and people generally become unhappy and dissatisfied with their work. In some cases, people experience mental or physical ailments. Family life may suffer. Although there might be some short-term benefits, in the long-term the behaviors become unsustainable and people end up leaving their jobs, whether by their or their employer’s choice.

The costs to teams are also significant. When you have over- and under-functioning on a team, over-functioners are likely to micromanage, dictate, blame, and become resentful. Under-functioners are likely to withdraw, avoid, resist, and sabotage. A dance of conflict ensues in which the players become unhappy and unfulfilled.

Finding Balance on the Spectrum

Fortunately, it is possible to change the dance. Although it can require getting out of our comfort zone (over- and under-functioning are often deep-rooted and can even go back to early family dynamics), with focused effort and intention we can find balance.

As mentioned in my post on Spectrum Mapping, the first step is identifying where you are on the spectrum. From there, name the behaviors behind your placement. This gives you a clear sense of where you are now.

Then, identify where you’d like to be. Identify the behaviors that would represent this new place. In this place, what would you be doing? Thinking? Feeling?

Once identified, begin to explore actions to bridge the gap. What would you need to change? What behaviors could you adopt? What must you acknowledge? Then, take action accordingly.

A New Dance

As you shift your own behavior and place on the Spectrum of Functioning, the dance will change. It’s less important what others do; it’s more important what you do. Your changes will naturally begin to change the dance for everyone involved. Although it can take time to see the results, they will come if you persist.

Because our roles as under- or over-functioners can be so deeply ingrained, it can be hard to know what to do differently. Following are some suggestions for consideration to shift your place on the spectrum.

Over-functioning:

  • Delegate
  • Hold others accountable
  • Coach and mentor others
  • Say no
  • Make time for yourself
  • Take responsibility for your results, not the collective results

Under-functioning:

  • Ask for what you need
  • Set goals
  • Take risks
  • Give feedback
  • Notice what others are experiencing
  • Be vulnerable