Is it poor performance or a sign of burnout?

As a leader, it can be frustrating when one (or multiple) of your team members are cynical, disengaged, or unproductive. And it can be extremely confusing when this behavior is atypical for this employee.

How do effective leaders handle this type of behavior? Our first instinct may be to offer solutions and fix the team member’s perceived problem. We may send extra reminders about projects and deadlines. Or remind them of the importance of their work.

Even though these solutions are well-intentioned, are we truly understanding the team member’s issues and actually helping? Or are we piling on? The problem with the solution-focused approach is that we assume we know what the problem is for the team member. Is the problem poor performance stemming from a lack of awareness or ability, which can be helped with solution-focused coaching? Or is the problem burnout, which requires leaders to utilize their “human skills” – active listening, empathy, and patience?

Before diving into “fix it” mode, leaders need to slow down, step back and watch and listen for the signs of burnout. Here’s a quick reminder from last week on the most common signs of burnout:

  • Decreased Productivity and Quality of Work

  • Uncharacteristic Disengagement

  • Increased Cynicism and Complaining

The most important thing to notice here is the change in the behavior. The team member’s new behavior is atypical or unusual for him or her. At this point, we only know three things:

  1. We know that his or her typical work demeanor, attitude, and efficiency has changed in a negative manner

  2. We know that we are unsure of what has caused this change.

  3. And we know that we want to help the team member in any way that we can.

First, you must attempt to understand the reasoning behind the team member’s atypical behavior. This change in attitude or performance could be caused by a variety of things – personally or professionally. We will not know until we ask. And we will not exacerbate the problem or create a new one by asking. So, have a conversation.

If the team member is not willing to offer up an explanation, ask questions that allow him or her to bring up the possibility of burnout. Here are some examples of non-judgmental questions that could help:

  • “What do you have on your plate right now? If you had the choice, how would you change it?”

  • “I noticed that you haven’t been turning in your normal reports this month. What’s keeping you from finishing those lately?”

  • Or simply, “You have not seemed yourself lately [use one or two examples]. How are you doing?”

  • Typically, responses to those questions sound like this from team members struggling with burnout:

  • “I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again,”

  • “I just can’t stay on top of everything,”

  • Or simply, “I’m exhausted.”

And this is good news! Because now we know the issue. And the issue is not specific to poor performance.

Now that we know more of what is going on, we can offer help that is appropriate for the situation and the person. Next week we’ll discuss helpful tips for how to help and resolve burnout.

Please schedule a call today for more on DREAM4 and their impact on organizational well-being and leadership development.

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