Leadership Burnout – Keeping Your Lantern Lit
The business world is going through something of a dark wilderness, and coming out the other side will require leaders to be brighter, steadier beacons. But what happens when that motivational fuel starts running low? The discourse about labor has focused largely on looking into the causes of the Great Resignation, and with it an examination of the state of the modern American employee – their debt, stagnant wages, mental health and burnout issues. This examination may be needed, but if leaders lose sight of their own needs and well-being they won’t be able to take on the project of making their company a corporate culture destination.
It Rolls Downhill
Gallup put the answer right in the title of a recent study. The research company published “It’s the Manager” in 2019 as a deep analysis of management literature and data to understand the deficiencies in engagement and productivity that business and thought leaders had identified well before the pandemic. The findings pointed overwhelmingly to one factor: “Seventy percent of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager.”
Engagement, purpose and motivation come from the top down. Keeping yourself motivated as a leader is essential to employee retention and will be the cornerstone of building a successful rehiring program. Not to say it’s easy. COVID blindsided executives into reactionary mode, and once the initial adrenaline of crisis management wore off, the shifting goalposts of compliance and whiplash changes in regulation and guidance just got, well, exhausting.
“Business leaders are supposed to be cheerleaders,” Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Halifax software company Redspace, told Canada’s The Globe and Mail. “But we’ve been trying to hustle and pivot and get through this for so long now. I’m out of gas.” By and large, leaders who fought through COVID burnout were rewarded with mass resignations and supply chain shortages.
The biggest mistake one can make in trying to keep forward momentum through all of this? Ignoring it. Discussing how “Sweatpants Managers” can stay motivated in the Wall Street Journal, Sam Walker writes about the importance of being a realist over blind – or even “toxic” – positivity. Only by facing specific obstacles can managers press through the gauntlet. He recommends identifying the big, emotionally-charged tasks that always seem to build up at the bottom of to-do lists and clearing off at least one a day, then helping your team identify theirs.
Ignoring dreaded tasks in favor of checking off straightforward items can cause a backlog of tension that trickles through your organization, and can even begin to feel like the permanent state of things. Taking care of the hard stuff, even just one task a day, doesn’t just relieve that tension; it also reminds us that we have the power to face discomfort and failure head-on.
When to Fight Fire… and When to Light One
Leaders need to show the ability to differentiate between what is urgent and what is important. Putting out every little fire that comes up during the day may seem urgent, but it can also extinguish your inner drive. Facing the problems in front of us is much easier when we remember that even mundane actions are in service of a greater goal. Conversations about non-pandemic or non-resignation topics helps both leaders and their employees uncouple thinking from the overwhelming things that feel like they are defining our day-to-day, and bring back to the fore the things that make being part of an organization exciting.
Fred Dust, the author of “Making Conversation,” recommends holding periodic Hunch Hours where team members can throw out ideas about the future of the world or their personal lives and discuss whether they are likely to come true. The only catch: they can’t be pandemic related.
This may seem like it flies in the face of being a realist and facing the tasks in front of you, but the goal of these sessions is a little different. It’s to remind people at every level of your organization – including even those at the very top – that you, as a company and as individuals, have a purpose beyond just getting through the tough times. Don’t let the little fires make you lose sight of the one that fuels your reason for working, or your organization’s ultimate reason for being.
Get Through Now by Focusing on the Future
The most exhausting aspect of the pandemic is that it seems to go in endless waves from vaccine to variant and back again. Mad dashes of productivity return to yet more dashed plans and another holding pattern. Executive coach Merette Wedell-Wedellsborg writes in Harvard Business Review about a client of hers who found success when, mid-pandemic, she asked her team to set up a task force with high performers from across the organization. Rather than leave employees in COVID Limbo, she put them to work developing programs that could eventually become longer-term competitive advantages. Goalposts kept moving short-term, but this executive and her task force were able to stay motivated and maintain a sense of direction by focusing on the future.
These types of long-term projects can absorb some of the shorter-term solutions to the Great Resignation that we’ve suggested elsewhere. For instance, systemizing retention interviews outside of the structure of normal performance reviews will help you monitor engagement well into the future. A task force designing training programs encourages employees to think about the growth of the company and how to lay the groundwork for the people who may follow in their footsteps. No matter the project, it will be the most successful when it fits within the framework of the singular idea that drives your organization.
Why Over What
There’s plenty of talk about the leverage employees carry in the labor market but not enough acknowledgement of the challenges it presents to owners, partners and managers who have had to scramble to keep their doors open and stay COVID-compliant, only to be met with a decade’s-worst labor shortage. It’s left a lot of companies at a loss for what to do.
The truth is, firms organized around a Shared Purpose have built-in armor against a crisis – they have a built-in recruitment and retention strategy. When leaders feel burned out too, it’s often because they’ve lost sight of that singular idea. The best thing you can do is remind yourself. Ask yourself WHY you are doing what you’re doing. Answer that, and the what will emerge with stunning clarity.