Tag Archives: anger, anxiety, burnout, change management, depression, emotional needs, leadership, power,

The Management of Burnout

Burnout is best prevented, but still treatable.

In the previous post The Nature of Burnout — Part 2, I indicated that burnout is the predictable long-term outcome resulting from over-functioning in the third limb of emotional triangles. To describe the management of burnout thus is quite simple:

  • Stop the over-functioning
  • Operate from the principle of: High intention; Low attachment

However to do this requires that the individual has resolved his or her personal difficulties, those difficulties that pull the individual into the third limb of the triangle. As a therapist, I had ongoing opportunity to explore this process; I used to tell people that I was being paid to do my own personal growth.

Therapy is a complex process. It is a relationship between two people wherein they explore the personal pain of the “client,” with the therapist as the “resource.” But all clients come with the hidden agenda that the therapist will fix the issue with which the client is struggling. (The long-term clients would say that the client was responsible for the issue, but the hidden agenda was still “fix me.”) And while doing so “fixing,” the client will do his or her best to resist and/or sabotage the therapist. Furthermore, it is relatively easy for the therapist to get caught in this agenda, especially if the therapist is invested in the issue. Sounds complicated, right? Yah!

therapy1As the therapist, my attitude was essentially that I was there both to support the client and, more importantly, to challenge the client — to create an experience wherein the client had the opportunity to experience the internal conflict associated with the issue. I was not especially interested in talking about the issue, as compared with creating a dynamic which frustrated the client, while at the same time, doing so in an environment of safety. Thus, for me, I treated the third limb (client and issue) as a guitar string. My job was to tweak the guitar string, and make a sound. What the client did with the sound was of little interest to me — that was the responsibility of the client.

I used to tell people that I had three rules when working with them:

  1. I would do no more than 50% of the work (occasionally more, but not reliably so),
  2. if at all possible we would have fun (people learn better when they are having fun), and
  3. if anyone was to be frustrated, guess who (because it was not going to be me).

In so functioning, I had high intention (to assist the client), but no attachment that I would do so — I was response-able for my own integrity, but I was not accountable for the client’s outcomes or life.

The management of burnout requires the following:

  • acceptance of authentic powerlessness
    • I must be clear as to that for which I am responsible, am accountable, and have authority
      • I must be aware and watchful of the enticement to be accountable for the larger system
    • having an appropriate vision of what is my role in a given system
      • my focus must be on my own integrity, even though my contribution may be to the greater good of the system
        • I must be able to congratulate myself for having achieved the outcomes I want, even though nothing happens within the larger system
      • I must provide myself with significant self-care — so that I do not rely entirely on the larger system to provide reward to me
        • this means that I manage my own emotional energy, especially when the system is not functioning effectively
          • if I am angry or frustrated, this means I am invested in the third limb! Clarity is needed, not passion
        • other aspects to which I can attend include:
          • write a lot in a journal, even if just scribbling (writing discharges energy more effectively than typing on a screen)
          • do anything small that makes a difference
          • find a supportive community, one focused on authenticity

There are other things I can do, but for me, these are the basics.

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