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Are You Draining Your Team’s Energy?

Maybe you are, but maybe you’re not. But if you are, Brian Eagar Founder, Group CEO of the TowerStone Leadership Centre enlightens you with how…

Many believe that burnout is simply caused by workload and that it can be fixed by putting boundaries in place that ensure work-life balance. If we book time out to focus instead of attending perpetual meetings, stick to working 9 to 5, set screen time limits on our phones and take that well-deserved holiday, we should keep our energy levels up, right? In depth research says that it might not be that simple.

In the article Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter describe burnout as a three-dimensional experience: “The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Bearing this in mind, it is clear that leaders must do much more than stick to reasonable working hours to address the pace at which burnout is claiming our workforce.

Besides all its other celebrated benefits, true engagement seems to also be vital for fighting burnout.

So how can leaders engage their team members to replenish rather than drain their energy levels?

The answer goes to the core of what drives us as human beings. We want to feel safe and valued. Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” If leaders focus on establishing a culture of psychological safety, team members can talk to and leverage each other’s abilities. Consequently, they spend less energy protecting themselves and trying to make it on their own.

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This should not be a once-off gesture, but a consistent way of engaging those you lead to ensure they can bring their best self to work. Citing Dr. David Rock’s SCARF model (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) regularly in my work because I believe it to be fundamental to how we engage those we lead in any situation. Simply put, when any of these elements are threatened, it stimulates the part of the brain that is triggered when our bodies feel pain, sending the danger signal and switching us off. This drains our energy and leaves our brain with little resources for focusing on anything else. Conversely, positive contributions to these domains switch us on and boost our energy levels.

It is therefore no coincidence that there is significant overlap between the SCARF domains and the six key areas of person‐job imbalances, or mismatches, that cause burnout as identified by the Areas of Worklife model (M. P. Leiter and C Maslach), namely workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. I believe that the solutions lie within this overlap:

·         Given the clear link between the control imbalance that causes burnout and our need for Autonomy in the SCARF model, it is critical that leaders abandon micromanagement by focusing on outcomes rather than the way they get done. Giving team members the freedom and resources to get things done their way, not only combats burnout, but also empowers them to take initiative and serve the business and your customers in the best way possible.

·         The research says that an imbalance in the area of reward devalues the work and the worker, i.e. it directly impacts our Status. Most people would agree that there are few things more draining than doing meaningless work. Make sure your team members know that you appreciate them and that their contribution matters. Sending an appreciative email, acknowledging their efforts in meetings and compensating them fairly are only a few ways to ensure they feel valued.

·         According to the Areas of Worklife model, team relationships that are characterised by a lack of support and trust, and by unresolved conflict, increase the risk of burnout. This means that the SCARF domain of Relatedness is another key aspect of preventing burnout. When we feel trusted, supported and understood by our leader and our team members, we are far less likely to succumb to burnout. Invest in your relationships with your team members and establish an environment where they support, rather than compete with one another. Besides mediating the effects of burnout, you will also foster better collaboration and increased team performance.

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·         Similar to a lack of reward, an imbalance in the area of Fairness also leaves us feeling devalued in relation to others. When we feel that our contribution is not equally valued, it starts to feel a lot more like energy spent, rather than invested. Be mindful of engaging all team members equally – especially those you find difficult to connect with. Most of the time leaders don’t play favourites intentionally. However, our brains prefer what is more comfortable so we might end up working more closely with those similar to ourselves. Stepping out of your comfort zone will go a long way towards preventing burnout and fostering an inclusive team where all the best ideas are heard.

·         Although there is no overt overlap with the SCARF domain of Certainty, we are all familiar with how exhausting anxiety can be. Manage this as best you can by keeping your team members informed of matters that affect them and provide line of sight where possible. The less energy they spend on worrying about the future, the more they can invest in meaningful work.

It is clear that burnout is as much caused by demotivation as it is by workload, which is yet another reason to invest in how you engage your team. While both workload and engagement can be difficult to manage, the SCARF model offers practical insight that helps us address the problem at its root. These domains are sustainable sources of energy that will often conquer workload with job satisfaction to spare.

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