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How To Help Your People Not Burn Out

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Over the last few years, “resilience” has been a big theme in the literature on business and personal effectiveness. The Harvard Business Review has a whole page of articles offering advice on how to stay resilient; Angela Duckworth’s lecture on “grit” has become one of the most-viewed TED talks; and authorities as wide-ranging as The New York Times, Psychology Today, and The Mayo Clinic propose ways to avoid, overcome, or recover from burnout (which the World Health Organization has classified as an “occupational phenomenon”—that is, directly related to work). I even wrote about resilience in Forbes, back in March of 2020, blissfully unaware of how much the imminent pandemic was going to test the resilience of the entire world.

Our lives, our jobs, and the modern world in general (especially media and social media) seem eager to sap our energy and optimism, and make us feel tired, overwhelmed, irritable, or pessimistic. How can you reduce some of that pressure and stress? No matter how resilient you are, you have your limits. We all do.

While staying resilient has our attention as a way to be more effective, never mind stay healthy— “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” as one my mentors used to counsel me—much of the resilience advice seems focused on the individual. “What YOU can do to become more resilient.” That advice misses a vitally important dimension: what we can do to help each other remain resilient. Indeed, as leaders we play a crucial role in fostering and recharging the resilience of our followers and teams.

While thinking about resilience I was reminded, believe it or not, of my high school soccer coach. I didn’t really like playing soccer, and I never got very good at it, but my tiny high school didn’t have a football team. So, I signed up and viewed playing soccer as a good way to get in shape for basketball, my true passion. Our coach, who had been a great player in college with a stint in the pros, was a generally nice guy who, when frustrated, showed a sadistic side. When he felt we were not trying hard enough, weren’t focused, or had played particularly poorly in the game the day before, he would make us run laps. Nothing new there—making athletes run laps is one of the oldest “character-builders” in the book. But here’s the perverse part: He would yell at us, “Start running laps! And I’ll tell you when you can stop!”

Our coach, who had been a great player in college with a stint in the pros, was a generally nice guy who, when frustrated, showed a sadistic side.

I’ll tell you when you can stop. For us players, this punishment was worse psychologically than it was physically. Just keep running. No goal, no limit, no end state, no milestones. I am sure we would have been happier if he’d demanded something crazy like “run 100 laps around the field” rather than having to endure not knowing how long we’d be running.

As leaders and managers, how often are we guilty of essentially telling our teams “I’ll tell you when you can stop”? We do just that when we don’t set clear goals; don’t celebrate small wins; don’t establish milestones; don’t monitor how hard our people are working and don’t give them a breather when they need it; and don’t express thanks and appreciation. We don’t mean to act like my sadistic soccer coach, but we do.

As leaders we must ourselves work to be resilient and optimistic. (“Leaders Never Have a Bad Day” the inspirational poster goes. Well, of course they do, but they have to be careful how they show it.) Being resilient may mean building new skills, practicing mindfulness, ensuring meaningful connections to others, giving ourselves rewards, stopping to appreciate what we have accomplished, or just logging off and unplugging to do whatever gives you joy. We must train and model resilience in ourselves, and teach and coach, recognize and applaud it in others. We cannot take the attributes that drive resilience for granted. Even materials with the highest levels of resiliency, like rubber, won’t bounce back under extreme stress. It is our job to cultivate “the bounce.”

At Kaseya’s Sales Kickoff this past week, I spent some time catching up with Tracy Hernandez, the company’s passionate and highly capable SVP of Sales Enablement. She shared a great story with me:

My grandmother used to say, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get…” I think grandma knew something those of us in fast-paced careers don’t fully appreciate. The idea of continuously running, always trying to speed up, always doing a little more … actually doesn’t work so well. In fact, that mindset can make you slower because you make mistakes; it can lead to suboptimal productivity and quality; and it can exhaust you so that you can’t perform at your best when it’s really needed.

It’s time to break the habit of perversely making our teams less resilient, and there’s a lot you can do as a leader to prevent your people from feeling like they are running infinite laps. The world is not going to move any slower. But we have the power to be more deliberate and focus the energy for better, more enduring results.

Following are a handful of ideas Tracy and I brainstormed, using that metaphor of marathon running. (Disclaimer: Tracy has run “a lot” of triathlons and Ironman races; I never liked running further than the length of a basketball court, but I have incredible respect for the amazing resilience of long-distance runners.)

· Help create a purpose along with describing the longer-term mission. Remember that people are motivated by different things: a first-time marathon runner aspires to complete the race, while a more experienced marathon runner is motivated by setting a personal record. If your team has a big goal, be sure everyone understands not just what they need to do but why it’s worth doing.

· Make sure your plans include setting milestones or micro-goaling: An effective marathon runner takes time to study the course, plan her pace, and figure out where and when to push. She calculates when to hydrate, eat a GU, or maybe even take a bathroom break! As the marathon is run, the runner thinks her way through the run, playing out the plan: “I get to marker 5, then I pick up my pace for the downhill segment.” Psychologically, doing so is important so as not to get caught up in the pain of the moment. Make sure to take a similar approach with your team. “It’s ok, there’s a downhill coming soon!”

· Expect to make adjustments and perform “mental shifting.” As the race is run, the runner adjusts based on how she is performing against her plan. Running in 70-degree weather when you trained for 45 is tough, but the ability to manage unexpected changes or bumps in the road is part of the deal. As a leader, don’t react wildly or erratically in the face of challenges. Instead, provide resources, clear the path, and project optimism and encouragement. That’s the way races are won.

· Use adversity as motivator. Every marathon runner will tell you there was that one race… that one hill… that one time at marker 18 when I realized I still had 8 miles to go didn’t think I could make it. These are the moments that define us. As a leader, tap into those Heartbreak Hills and use them as a rallying cry: “We can do it, we have done harder things before, and here’s the reason why this effort will be worth it.”

· Don’t lose focus on the human element. Your team members are actually people, not machines. People with rich lives, aspirations, fears, and troubles outside the workplace that are every bit as real and complex as your own. Simply checking in with your followers how they’re doing can go a long way to build top up people’s resilience and energy. Planning touchpoint to connect on the personal front shows you are vested in them as people not just “workers.” You might be surprised by the positive impact of something as simple as asking “Are you OK?”

Many leaders unwittingly (though not necessarily maliciously) fall into the trap of demanding that people “just keep running,” assuming that their team members will dig deep and magically be resilient. Instead, they find their teams burned out, unengaged, and unable to produce results.

Rather, leaders can build true resiliency by thinking like the coach of a team of endurance athletes. Use techniques like creating purpose, setting milestones, mental-shifting, adversity management, and focusing on the human to generate energy, keep people motivated, and ensure good decisions. Remember, winning in business is a team sport, not an individual race!

Many thanks to Tracy Hernandez and Millie Acebal for making this article much better.

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