Organizational Culture In The Age Of Burnout: What Every Leader Should Know
If you’re in a management or leadership position, you’ve likely experienced this: You bring on a young and promising new hire to drive productivity, and boy, do they deliver. They take pride in their work, care about the mission and their output is off the charts. It’s an increase in effort that you haven’t seen in a long time, and you are thrilled. In your mind, you’ve struck gold.
However, as time passes, the newbie’s attitude starts to shift. They are easily irritated, take days to answer emails, their output drops, they’re noticeably less engaged in team meetings and they’re no longer the energetic racehorse you hired. Eventually, after only a couple of years (or less), they jump ship.
What I’ve just described is known as the “burnout arc.” Research indicates that in our increasingly fast-paced work environment, with ever-rising revenue goals, always-on technology and ever-increasing workloads, our talented employees are burning out at alarmingly high rates. So much so that Business Insider recently reported the economic fallout from the burnout epidemic to be over $300 billion globally.
So, what can you do? Multiple studies (including this one by the Harvard Business Review) indicate that organizational culture plays a key role in whether your best performing and most engaged employees sink or swim. But when I say culture, I’m not talking about office perks, employee discounts or after-hours workout classes; I’m talking about respect.
In my years spent studying the impact of respectful leadership, one important commonality holds true: Respectful boundaries and communication are the cornerstones of any organization that strives to retain its top talent.
Consider a few hard-learned truths about your employees’ day-to-day realities:
• According to research by Christine Porath, professor at Georgetown University and author of Mastering Civility, nearly two-thirds of employees are treated rudely by a coworker, boss or customer at least once per month.
• Employees feel pressured to check work emails when they’re off the clock, which can lead to anxiety and cause excess strain on your team.
If you’re a leader who cares, then you’ll be alarmed by this data. It’s important to remember that most of us are not fitted with impervious suits of armor that allow disrespect to roll off our backs. The reality is, most of us experience negative thoughts and feelings when we feel disrespected. In fact, 80% of all employees will spend significant work time worrying about the disrespectful behaviors they experienced on the job.
At the same time, I’ve observed many people who feel that in order to be effective (or at least valued), they need to stay almost constantly connected to work. But, if the organizational culture is disrespectful, this need to be connected only reinforces feelings of negativity. So, given the data, do you really believe that the Friday beer cart or a ping pong table in the break room will do anything to calm an employee’s nerves when a condescending email lights up their phone screen on Sunday morning?
If your employees don’t feel respected by you, then all the coolest perks in the world won’t do a thing to make them want to stick around. Instead, their easiest solution in this time of full employment becomes to jump off the toxic merry-go-round on which they’ve found themselves. And when they leave, they take their talents, knowledge, experience and possibly a few colleagues with them.
Admittedly, there isn’t much you can do when customers treat your employees poorly. But what can you do internally is to ensure that your organization consistently expresses respect and gratitude for your employees’ contributions. After years of research with my colleagues, I have compiled a shortlist of respectful leadership practices that positively impact your company’s culture. Here are four:
1. Listen reflectively. Management guru Stephen Covey is famously attributed with saying, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Reflective listening is a simple, three-step technique that helps you send the message “I hear you.” Start with the phrase “What I think I hear you saying is…”, followed by a brief paraphrase or summation of the points you just heard. Then, follow this with the question “Have I got that right?” In my experience, most people feel respected when their colleagues use reflective listening regularly.
2. Respect your team’s time. Don’t expect your team to always be “on” or to respond to work emails when they’re at home. Be punctual when you call a meeting, and don’t rehash the same points over and over once the meeting has started.
3. Ask them how they’re doing, and mean it. Your people are your organization’s power; respect your power source. Make it a regular practice to check in on them about how they’re doing overall. You shouldn’t pry, but you should let them know you genuinely care.
4. Set realistic goals. It’s easy to get excited about the maximum potential, especially when your employees demonstrate they are great at what they do. But, repeatedly setting the bar impossibly high can cause employees to go into “loss-prevention” mode, in which they’ll focus on accomplishing your goals by any means necessary, even to their own, or the organization’s, detriment. Leaders should make sure employees have everything they need to meet a goal — including time — and not set unrealistic expectations.
Bottom line: Organizational culture starts at the top, and respect is infectious. When you treat your employees with consistent and genuine respect, they’re far more likely to treat one another and your customers with respect, too. Choose to fight the burnout arc by cultivating respectful cultures where employees are empowered to grow right alongside the prosperity they create.