Sticky Notes: How to Fight Overcommitment and Be a Master Collaborator

Build authentic working relationships based on a service mindset steeped in real authority. That’s how to ensure we will generate momentum for great things to come.

The world of work has been becoming more complex and uncertain since we began studying it in 1993. But now, of course, that complexity and uncertainty has been magnified by new and unexpected challenges. Many of the problems to be solved are new. But many more of them have been faced and managed by those I call the “indispensables”—the go-to people who stand the test of time.

Let me be clear: Nothing those indispensables do speaks directly to the challenges of the Great Resignation or hybrid work. But they do speak to this reality of the post-pandemic era: You and your colleagues will have to rely on one another even more than before—with no end in sight. To get the best performance from yourself, your team, or your organization, you must embrace collaboration. That means managing more working relationships and competing priorities.

No One Can Do Everything for Everyone

To relieve the pressure, it can be tempting to say, “Yes,” to every new ask. Figuring out how to make everyone happy can seem less impossible than figuring out how to say, No.” But the problem is, nobody can do everything for everybody, no matter how self-sacrificing and hardworking they may be. Eventually, they will have to let someone down. This results in a cycle of overcommitment and burnout than can have cascading effects throughout the entire organization.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people go into siege mode, seeing every new opportunity as a threat to their already overcommitted time. They put up their defenses, isolate, or become difficult to work with. Whether succumbing to siege mentality or overcommitting ourselves, we run the risk of damaging our working reputations and squandering valuable opportunities to earn more.

Master Collaborator Techniques

So how do you deliver for others and get your own work done, while fighting overcommitment at the same time? It’s about embracing the mindset and techniques of master collaborators:

  • Understand the peculiar mathematics of real influence. Gain real influence by building a reputation on serving others in ways that matter. That way, when you inevitably need something from them, they’ll be much more likely to want to work with you, make good use of your time, and contribute to your successful outcomes.
  • Lead from wherever you are. Start always from what’s required and what’s allowed. Align yourself and your people up and down the chain of command. You have to go vertical before you can go sideways or diagonal. Then, drive alignment with everyone involved through regular, ongoing, structured communication.
  • Know when to say, “No,” and how to say, “Yes.” You cannot do everything, so you need to do the right things for the right reasons. Take other people’s needs seriously by tuning in to every ask and giving it your real due diligence. Every good “no” is about freeing you up for a better “yes.” Yes is where all the action is. Yes is your chance to add value and build the relationship. Don’t waste it! Every “yes” deserves a plan of action and focused execution.
  • Work smart. Sure, but what does it mean? It means NOT trying to only work in your area of passion and strength because that’s just not realistic. It means, whatever you do, professionalize it. That means learning best practices, repeatable solutions and creating job aids. So that anything you do becomes one of your “specialties.”
  • Finish what you start. Of course, your to-do list is ever growing and never ending. The key is NOT learning how to juggle better! If you are always juggling, eventually, you’re bound to drop the ball. How do you become the person who gets things done? Break work into smaller chunks and make your “do not disturb” zones larger. That’s it. Smaller chunks of work and bigger chunks of focused execution time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Yes. But remember, for every bite, you need time to chew and swallow. Bite, chew, swallow. How much of the elephant can you eat in each sitting?
  • Get better and better at working together. Complications are bound to arise. Things might not necessarily go according to plan (no matter how well you plan.) Resist the urge to point fingers and blame. And remember to light a big fire under every thank you. Make it a habit to celebrate every single contribution, do after-action reviews about how to improve together (instead of pointing fingers), and look around the corner together to plan ahead and make the next opportunity to work together go even better.
  • Promote “go-to-ism” in your organization. Be a go-to person. People will notice. Find go-to people wherever you need them by being an amazing customer and being the best at helping people help you. And build up new people whenever you have the chance. Invest in people. Invest in relationships. That’s how you build real influence, the power you have when other people want you to succeed because you help them succeed. And upward the spiral goes.

Generate Momentum for Great Things

Connection is the key. Don’t allow the uncertainty to close you off. Don’t put up your defenses. We all need one another, now more than ever. Build authentic working relationships based on a service mindset steeped in real authority. That’s how to ensure we all get through this together, and generate momentum for great things to come.

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: