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Overcommitment Syndrome Leads to Siege Mentality at Work

The way we respond to overcommitment can make it much worse.

If you are like most people, you are drowning, more or less, in a cascade of “asks” from internal customers at work. You know that you can’t say yes to everyone and everything, but you often feel as if you can’t say no either.

You probably too often say yes when you should say no. Or you say yes without establishing realistic expectations and clear parameters about what you can do, when, and how. You say yes without asking the “asker” what you really need to know so that you can actually deliver your part.

All this leaves you wondering which work to do in what order. Your immediate boss might, or might not, help you prioritize. But it all has to get done, as soon as possible.

So, at any given moment, you probably owe too many things to too many people. Juggling so many commitments, you’ll soon start dropping balls. It’s just a matter of time. You feel as if you are always in danger of disappointing somebody.

When the shoe is on the other foot and you are the internal customer.

More frustrating still is when the shoe is on the other foot. Just like everybody else, you need to make requests of your colleagues, people who are working alongside you or in other teams, functions, and departments. But when you are forced to rely on them, it’s easy to forget that your colleagues are facing the same pressures as you.

They also probably say yes too often and, just like you, find themselves overcommitted, scrambling to manage competing priorities. And when your colleagues drop the ball and don’t deliver for you, this leads to delays and missed steps in your work. So, maybe then you go over their heads. What else are you supposed to do?

But think about it: What are they supposed to do? Like you, they cannot do everything for everybody.

Overcommitment syndrome.

Overcommitment syndrome emerges when everything on your to-do list is “urgent and important.” New priorities are added to the list every day. Everybody is competing for limited resources, human resources, first and foremost.

As you and your colleagues all get more and more overcommitted, the chances of things going wrong, for all of you, start increasing. Delays become inevitable. Communications slip through the cracks. People misunderstand each other or lose track of specifications. Everybody has more delays and mistakes to deal with, so everybody’s overcommitment just keeps getting worse.

How on earth are you going to get what you need from each other, when it feels like you’re all at each other’s mercy?

You can badger, beg, bully, bribe, flatter, manipulate. You can convince—or at least con. Or you can go over each other’s heads. Maybe your bosses can’t work it out, and they go over each other’s heads too.

Ultimately, siege mentality sets in.

When you are drowning in other people’s competing urgent and important priorities, and you have a hard time getting what you need from others, and it feels as if nobody is in control of these interdependent relationships, then pretty soon every interaction feels like a battle. You feel as if you are always under siege.

Josie Stephens/Pexels
When you are drowning in competing priorities, you start to resist one another.
Source: Josie Stephens/Pexels

You and your colleagues start to resist each other.

You are still forced to rely on each other, but it feels like pulling teeth, ever chasing each other down to get what you need. You expect to be disappointed and thus become increasingly demanding. You take less time explaining and more time insisting, complaining, and blaming. Every incoming “ask” feels like an attack to fend off. You become increasingly defensive. You work less to understand where others are coming from and work harder at hiding, debating, and resisting. Resentments grow. Pretty soon, “no” seems like the only answer.

Siege mentality is a response to feeling out of control. The paradox is you lose control even more. You say no to everything, but not for the right reasons. You say no because of your workload and your mindset—not based on the quality of the opportunity or your ability to add value in relation to that opportunity.

But the need to collaborate isn’t going away just because you are hiding. When you resist, you cede whatever control you could possibly have and undermine your ability to gain more control. You will still have to deal with more work and more people. They will just be less and less of your own choosing.

The more you resist, the more collaboration becomes a weight (with fewer choices) dragging you down. Siege mentality is like fighting with your rescuer when you are in over your head.

Overwhelmed by overcommitment syndrome and overcome by siege mentality, some people burn out, blame the organization, and then leave. Wherever they end up, they probably will soon find themselves in a similar pickle.

Others burn out, blame the organization, but somehow they stay: They become part of the bad attitude crowd, the not-go-to people—people to avoid at all costs.

Fortunately, most people bounce back. When you do bounce back resist going right back saying yes, yes, yes again. It’s hard to avoid getting drawn right back into the same no-win cycle. “Yes, yes, yes” leads right back to overcommitment syndrome, which leads right back to siege mentality, which leads right back to “no, no, no.”

Instead you’ve got to make choices about what to do, why, when, and how: Align with your boss regularly so you know what is require and what is allowed. Tune in to every request. Ask good questions and take notes. Say no when you cannot do something or are not allowed or when it’s really not a good idea for you … at least right now. Say not yet or, yes, “in two days” or “two weeks” or “two months.”

Whenever you do say yes, set up every yes for success with a concrete plan of action and then work smart, finish what you start, and follow-up to build the working relationship.

Beat overcommitment syndrome, get the right things done, and build real influence with your colleagues up, down, sideways, and diagonal—all over the organization chart.