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Insights: Overwhelm
November 25, 2009


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Have you experienced unprovoked discourteous, curt or even downright rude behaviour in your business dealings with others?
In this week's newsletter, Bill explains how such behaviour is often symptomatic of deeper problems of stress and overwhelm that the perpetrator is unable to deal with.

In the past few weeks I've heard similar comments passed by a number of friends and colleagues about their unsavoury experiences in various business dealings with buyers of their products and services.

A common theme is the surly and rude manner in which people, in positions of relative power, deal with their suppliers and subordinates.

A true story

Here's a true story I heard from a very good friend of mine. I'll call him Joe, though that's not his real name.

Joe owns a Cape Town design agency and has been working on a complex promotion for a multinational corporation, with its SA headquarters in Johannesburg. The policy of the corporate is to route all purchases of material through their buying department, run by a man we will call Tom.

Joe calls Tom to inform him that he has met the deadline and that the promotional material, urgently required for a big expo the day after next, is ready for delivery. Joe, who has been told to deal personally with Tom on this issue, wants to be certain of the delivery arrangements that Tom requires.

After numerous attempts at calling, Joe gets through to Tom only to be told angrily:

"I'm in a meeting, I can't talk now!"

Joe responds politely: "I understand, Joe. When would you like me to call you back?"

"In 64 seconds," comes the terse reply, before Tom slams the phone down.

Joe, bemused and surprised by Tom's approach, assumes that Tom has been upset by something in his meeting and feels it would be prudent to allow Tom a few minutes to deal with the situation before bothering him again. As Joe has to attend a meeting with another customer, he instructs his secretary, Candice, to call Tom back in 15 minutes and deal with him as politely as she can.

On receiving Candice's call, Tom demands to know why Joe has not called him personally.

Candice does her best to explain: "Joe had to attend a meeting with another of our customers. He'd just like to know how you would like us to deliver the completed promotional material so as to ensure it gets to you on time?"

Tom is almost apoplectic: "I clearly instructed Joe to call me back in 64 seconds. By my watch, 880 seconds has passed and Joe has still not called. Tell him his customer service is **** and he can keep his **** promotional material - Goodbye!"

Joe received a call from the company's marketing department the next day, berating him for missing the deadline they had stipulated.

Dishearteningly prevalent

It would be something of a joke if this were a completely unusual occurrence but I'm afraid to say that instances of discourteous, impolite and downright rude and demeaning behaviour seems to be dishearteningly prevalent in business in South Africa today.

Why is this?

When someone uses his or her position as a justification for putting others down - or just plain unprovoked rudeness - it is almost always symptomatic of a problem or character trait that he or she has but does not want to own up to or come to terms with. By projecting the problem or deficiency onto someone else the perpetrator feels better - at least in the short-term - about him or herself.

Ingredients for overwhelm

Business people in South Africa today are confronted with many complex economic and socio-political challenges that are unique to our fledgling democracy and hybrid first/third world environment. South Africa has a desperate shortage of professional skills coupled with burgeoning unemployment. We are struggling to remain competitive in world markets while trying to find socially acceptable solutions to address the effects of past discrimination.

When not enough people with insufficient skills, try to tackle challenges as complex as those faced in our business world, the net effect is heightened stress levels - and overwhelm!

Finding scapegoats

Dealing effectively with stress and overwhelm requires a degree of personal maturity and an understanding of where and how to look for support. Unfortunately, many of our business people possess neither. The only way out is to find scapegoats for poor performance - to resort to blame and justification. When such people occupy positions with some power or authority, those whom they wield power over are the unfortunate targets.

Take Tom in the example cited above. In all likelihood, an event or culmination of events or circumstances, led to him feeling out of control and poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of his position.

Lacking either the personal maturity or access to support, or both, Tom resorted to the one thing his position provided him with - the ability to wield power over others. Regular unchallenged outbursts directed at staff and suppliers allowed him to shift responsibility for his inadequacy, thus offering him temporary relief (but ensuring longer-term misery!)

A role for life coaching

Life coaching has a pivotal role to play in helping business people to avoid what I call the 'tyrancy trap' associated with stress and overwhelm - and the likely subsequent need for therapy and counselling for all those affected by it.

Through life coaching people become more in touch with who they truly are and what they are truly capable of; more appreciative of the uniqueness of their fellow humans and how to use that understanding to help them grow and develop; more in balance, more aware of the power of fair exchange, more grateful, more satisfied... More loving!

Till next week...

Warm regards,


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