Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First – What it Means & Why it’s Important

On a recent trip, the flight attendant went through her normal drill as we prepared for takeoff. She had a wry sense of humor, having repeated the FAA instructions probably thousands of times during her career, and wanted to capture the attention of this groggy, sleep-deprived, and experienced traveler.

After learning how a seat belt works (which, by my mid 40’s, I hoped I was doing that correctly), she said something that caught my attention and made me chuckle.

“In the unlikely event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, remove your COVID mask and apply the oxygen mask. Only once yours is secure, then help the child next to you who is mostly likely to choose the better nursing home for you.” Humor aside, her comments stuck with me the rest of the flight.

First, how often do we as managers take the time to ensure our own oxygen mask – which supplies the life sustaining flow of oxygen during a time of stress– is firmly secured before we try to help others? As WISE Alumni know, making time for the ‘Big Rocks’, the strategic work, is critical to our success. Stephen Covey talks about this in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Imagine a jar with a limited amount of room and having to fit not only big rocks, but smaller rocks, and sand. If the ‘big rocks’ represent the most important priorities and the sand is all the other little things that fill up our lives – email, phone calls, laundry, less important priorities, and so on – how do we make space or time for the big rocks? We need to prioritize them first.

One of those Big Rocks should be our own mental and physical health. Take an inventory, how much time are you spending on you? Has it been a while since you have had the chance to invest in yourself, either in a class, a retreat, or even reading a good book or taking a mind clearing hike? What’s bringing oxygen back into our lives?

The next thought was to help the “most likely to succeed child.” While said in jest, there is some truth in that idea. To use the analogy of ‘child’ for those we care for, those we nurture, then in this case, we’re considering our employees. All too often, we spend most of our time on employees that are underperforming, sacrificing precious time that could be spent developing our A players. One strategy is to delegate some tasks and projects to those high-performing teammates. Often, we don’t delegate because it would be ‘easier’ to do ourselves and take longer to explain it, or we want to complete certain projects ourselves, or we lack confidence in others/think we’re the only ones who can do it correctly. However, by delegating, we’re allowing our team members to grow, building their confidences, growing their skill sets, and giving managers some much needed time to tend to other tasks.

How to Delegate Effectively:
1. Know What to Delegate. Not everything can be delegated.
2. Play to your Employees’ Strengths and Goals.
3. Define the Desired Outcome.
4. Provide the Right Resources and Level of Authority
5. Establish a Clear Communication Channel
6. Allow for Failure
7. Be Patient
8. Deliver (and Ask for) Feedback
9. Give Credit Where It’s Due.

Delegating isn’t easy, but it becomes easier the more we practice it and learn from it over time. By building the team bench-strength through delegation, we can free up time to focus on our own big rocks, like our mental health.