The Nature of Burnout, Part 2

Burnout1Apologies to my readers — I indicated in the first post The Nature of Burnout, Part 1 that there would be a second, and I got distracted. So here we go.

To review what I said last time, “burnout occurs when I am overly invested in outcomes I cannot control — sooner or later, I become exhausted, and I call it burnout. Burnout therefore is a measure of the extent that I have not accepted my own powerlessness in life.”

And: the resolution is effective leadership, in particular that leaders lead others, they manage themselves. In leading others in a particular project or direction, they encourage followers who want to do the work of the project, and therefore do not need to be pushed. As well, the leader manages him- or herself, focusing on the positive features (of self and other) that are controllable, and finding creative ways to utilize the negative features that are always present (again, of self and other).

My best way of examining both burnout and leadership is via the concept of emotional triangles as described in the last posting The Nature of Emotional Triangles. Burnout occurs because of over-functioning, being inappropriately or excessively invested in the third limb of emotional triangles.

Self-differentiation versus burnout

Healthy responses, those of self-differentiation, are responses that are within the control of the individual. The individual (#1) can take a stand regarding an issue, or can extend care (love) into relationships with people (#2), or can work to clarify the nature of the issue (i) for that individual. All of this requires courage, often stepping out of the cultural rules of how to behave “in public.” Alternatively, the individual play with the emotional energy contained within the triangle; learning to play with emotionality is probably the most complex skill to be gained by individuals (it took me about ten years to be satisfied with my ability to play).

Unhealthy responses to a situation are those wherein the individual (#1) attempts to control others, or the ways in which another responds to an issue (i) — these are interventions into the third limb of the emotional triangle, and in the long term are ineffective. Per se, these types of interventions are common, and as long as the other person (#2) chooses to be cooperative (they are getting paid, they like the outcome, et cetera), there is no problem. The difficulty occurs when the other does not want to cooperate (consider the example of parents interacting with angry teenagers). At this point, an intervention into the third limb becomes ineffective, resulting in resistance, and ultimately a place of stuckness where the first person exhausts him- or herself.

This is a common source of burnout

Another major difficulty occurs when three management concepts are out of balance or are misinterpreted: responsibility, accountability, authority.

  • responsibility (response-ability) is the ability to respond — to have the skill to deal with whatever is the issue or task. It can be taught to others (if they are interested), but not given away per se.
  • accountability is the obligated need to accomplish a task, either by oneself or delegated to another. Accountability can be delegated, but not circumvented, to those capable of response-ability.
  • authority refers to permission to accomplish a task. Again, it can be delegated but not circumvented.

Imagine you are accountable for a project, but have no authority to accomplish it. You need resources, but have no way to obtain them. What will happen, especially to you? Or, imagine you have authority and accountability for a task, but no skill (nor is there anyone available who is skillful). What will happen to you?

When these three functions are mismatched, the individuals concerned are at high risk of burnout. And in my therapy practice, I encountered many examples “in the real world” where they were mismatched!

Coming next: The Management of Burnout

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