Mastering the art of ‘biting off more than you can chew’

Professional & Managerial
Kymberly Tupai

Have you ever had to tell your children not to put so much in their mouths when they eat? Or, have you ever tried to take a small bite of something only to find that a lot more came with it than you bargained for?

Pizza can be like that. It’s usually hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth; and so in an attempt to bite off just a little, you can end up pulling all of the topping off at once. Then what do you do?

Or how about a burger? You take one bite and it, plus the lettuce, onion, tomato, gherkin and special sauce ends up sliding out of the bun all at once.

You can do exactly the same thing in business. You can bite off more than you can chew without even realising it until it’s all over the front of your virtual shirt.

What does this mean in our jobs?

This happens by over-committing – by making promises that you can’t keep.

Why do you do this?! Undoubtedly, it’s because you want the work. You feel that you have to keep upping the ante in order to get your prospects to say “Yes”. You don’t want to walk away empty-handed, wishing that you had “gone the extra mile”.

I have recently been promoted into a Team Leader position, and have undertaken day to day operational management responsibilities alongside continuing to recruit for the clients that I know and love. In reflecting on the journey I have just embarked on, I have come to terms with the fact that I am somewhat a serial-offender when it comes to biting off more than I can chew in the business world – and thriving while I do so (with a natural tinge of fear amongst the ambition/excitement).

That tinge of fear is a good thing. The uncertainty and self-doubt bubbles up periodically, but serves as a motivator, not a deterrent. Harnessing the feeling that comes from taking a big risk can and should be used to your advantage.

Have you really overcommitted? Have you really made promises you can’t keep? Usually the answer is no, it’s just a matter of managing these feels of uncertainty, and being able to efficiently prioritise your work.

How can you harness the feeling of risk-taking and use it to your advantage?

In most of the highest performing, highest growth organisations across the private, public and nonprofit sectors, you will see a culture where biting off more than you can chew is incentivised and rewarded, not discouraged or denied. These organisations have clarity of and commitment to the mission, structure and efficiency to their decision-making, and space to learn, make new mistakes and apply new lessons going forward.

Biting off more than you can chew can be done at an individual, team or organisational level. It’s going after a promotion you might think is a long shot. It’s taking a new approach with your team to solve a pesky, niggling problem. It’s making a big bet on a strategic decision where the result for the organisation might be uncertain.

Organisations that do this effectively provide the space where people are comfortable taking a full chance, and in turn, benefit in meaningful ways with employee performance, engagement and commitment to core work.

Saying your organisation or operating style is geared this way is the easy part. Practicing it is the tough part. And the potential payoff? There’s only one way to find out…

What’s The Risk?

Simply put: complacency. That’s the risk of not biting off more than you can chew every now and then. It’s the risk of not testing yourself. To think you can’t grow, learn or evolve, or thinking you’ve got it all figured out is a recipe for disaster, for virtually any executive, employee or organisation. You’ll never know what you can do otherwise.

Good leaders, at any level of an organisation, know if and when to take a risk. They know when it’s time to “take the risk or lose the chance,” as a former manager of mine used to say.