The Burnt Out Leader

In a Changing Organisation
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Organisations across East Africa have encountered increased change within a very short time. Incremental change organisations anticipated over the next few years, have now been condensed into less than 12 months.

Flexible working arrangements, as an example, have become the norm, even in traditional organisations which would have ordinarily never considered such a change in their environment. 

These requires extensive planning and involves financial implications. How will organisations track performance? How will organisational culture be impacted? How will employee relations be handled in this environment? Do we even have a policy to begin with? 

Everyone has had to adapt dramatically to this new environment. A negative outcome of this is almost an expectation of everyone to be ‘okay’ with all these changes in a classic case of ‘shape up or shape out’. 

What is Bothering People? 

The not-so-gradual disappearance of the traditional work environment has led to a myriad of other issues that would previously not be given predominance 

Employees are now having to cope with a new set of problems causing them stress and eventually driving them to burn out. Travel restrictions are making it impossible for some people to be with their families and friends. Virtual working has added an extra burden to interactions with people. There have been and continue to be changes in lifestyle, balancing work and family in the same space with quarantine and cessation of movements. 

In May 2021, Career Connections conducted a survey to gain insights into the main contributing factors to stress and burnout in Kenya. Responses were collected from professionals working across 18 different industrial sectors. These participants ranged from senior management to non-management. 

COVID-19 on its own is a major stressor; however, out of the surveyed professionals only 0.02% listed the pandemic as the source of their stress in the workplace. 

The top 4 stressing factors that emerged from the data were: 

There was little disparity in the responses when the data was analysed based on gender and industry. However, there were statistically significant differences in the causes of stress and burnout at different levels of management.

More Work for Everyone 

There is no manual or guide to navigating today’s business environment; each new day presents a new set of opportunities and challenges.

Leaders and professionals in general cannot fall back on their experience in this totally uncharted environment. In response to the global economic climate and major shifts in supply and demand, many organisations have adopted leaner and flatter structures to ride out the storm. 

Nonetheless, the storm has lasted longer than anyone anticipated it. Leaders and their teams are stretching themselves to accommodate these shifts, often blurring the boundaries of their specific roles and taking on additional roles and responsibilities. 

This is all in a bid to adapt to the needs of the organisation at that moment in time. Given the new ways of working, with teams split between working remotely and working in the office, the traditional channels of seeking clarity and feedback are no longer as easily accessible. 

Additionally, leaders are expected to be the source of the clarity, providing solutions and directions to their teams. However, in today’s environment, they too are treading water and often do not have the answers. Herein lies a source of miscommunication! 

Poor Communication

How can leaders communicate what they themselves are not sure about? 40 percent of the surveyed participants highlighted poor communication in the team as a source of stress for them.

As communication was already an area of concern for many organisations pre-pandemic, interventions such as open-door policies were instituted in some organisations. COVID further aggravated this as whilst in the office, it was perhaps easier to walk-up to someone’s desk and talk to them, and ask for help. Remote working puts the proverbial ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage into action. 

To further complicate issues, the cost of communication has gone up, with homes having to consider internet connectivity, video and telecommunication infrastructure costs. Additionally, managing team members personalities in a virtual environment, as compared to a face-to-face setting, poses a new challenge for leaders. 

Personality assessment data collected using the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) on 15,000 East African professionals indicates moderately low scores on Sociability. This scale measures the entire spectrum between extraversion and introversion. Being the second lowest scored scale, on average, shows a preference for independent working, with limited human interaction. Therefore, keeping the channel of communication open and consistent requires a conscious effort and intentionality.

Low scorers on the Sociability scale tend to be quiet and reserved. They hold back during discussions and do not give sufficient feedback. In the virtual working environment, such an individual could slip away into the shadows of lack of communication. 

Never Asks for Help

At the same time, the highest score observed is Ambition; the degree to which a person is socially self-confident, competitive, energetic, leader-like and proactive.

Ambition is a powerful trait to have in a workforce, especially when everyone is aligned on the goals. However, in times of crises, when collaboration is paramount, ambition can turn against teams with consistently high scores. Ambitious individuals are often so focused on self-advancement, they forget to be team players. 

From a personal perspective, the downside of high ambition also has the potential to impact the individual’s health. Let us put this into perspective by reeling in the lack of role clarity, unmanageable workloads, and poor communication. The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) is a tool designed to evaluate personality in times of stress and high pressure. Data collected on more than 5,000 professionals across East Africa shows exaggerated scores on Diligence.

The ambition trait of personality has a sly side to it that makes people overly confident, believing that they can get everything done without asking for help. This is the façade that stems from a relentless drive for accomplishment and to prove oneself to others. 

On a day-to-day basis, diligence is a strength indicating great attention to detail and conscientiousness. However, in times of crisis, diligence manifests as perfectionism, micromanagement, inability to delegate effectively, poor prioritisation; all which link to a challenge in managing workloads and a leaders’ ability to communicate effectively within their teams. 

How do the leaders behave? This shortcoming when it comes to ‘support seeking’ is validated by data collected using other leadership assessments such as the LVI. 

Personality informs behaviour and the LVI is a normed 360-degree assessment that is used to evaluate overuse or underutilisation of specific behaviours by leaders. It should come as no surprise that the most underutilised behaviours are reliance on input, openness to influence and receptiveness to push-back. These behaviours link to a tendency to seek support and ideas from others regardless of the situation.

Building self-awareness around these personality traits and leadership behaviours including their impact on others, is critical in managing change and preventing the likelihood of burnout. 

Unmanageable Time Pressure

Remote working has brought with it a need to reimagine how performance is evaluated.

Stories have been told of managers who have instituted drastic ‘invigilator-like’ measures monitoring their team members through video conferencing facilities. Others have had to develop trust with their remote - working team. However, in an environment where performance is evaluated by measuring visibility, low scorers on Sociability are likely to struggle due to their comfort in working independently and low engagement.

Furthermore, in a bid to be visible and remain relevant, employees are likely to adopt unhealthy work habits; people waking early to send emails; work on reports; complete that problematic programming code, prepare presentations for the Board; all before they join an infinite string of Zoom/MS Teams calls, to find themselves only starting to chip away at their ever-growing to-do list at 7p.m.

This could be one of the explanations for the feelings of unreasonable time pressure cited largely by the first line management and non-management respondents.

A common conundrum expressed by employees is “I have spent the whole day logging in from one meeting to the next all regarding different projects with varying action points. When will I get the time to execute and deliver?”

The Reward and Compensation Conundrum 

Poor reward and compensation’ was among the most commonly cited stressor. 

Reward and compensation structures in organisations have always been rigid, characterised by a one-size-fits-all approach. The commom assumption of these structures is that the benefits are indeed valuable to everyone and thus the employees should be motivated. 

Personality data on 15,000 East African professionals indicates moderately low scores on Sociability. This scale measures the entire spectrum between extraversion and introversion. However, with changing work patterns will such compensation structures remain fair and applicable? How can organisations incorporate values and purpose to give meaning to individuals’ work? 

Given the levels of burnout, will this be enough to keep people engaged or is it time to shake up the reward and compensation structures? What should be the reward for participating and being actively engaged in a changing environment? 

Managing The Change

Here you have the burnt-out leaders, trying to do too much, and does not trust their team members to execute their mandate.

Such a leader will have their team taking on too much, feeling unappreciated and poorly rewarded; the end result is a stressed- and burnt-out team or organisation. 

Organisational change in the face of a sudden or smouldering crisis is like a Jenga game. At the beginning, the blocks are arranged in a systemic way. As long as the foundation remains stable, the integrity of the entire structure remains uncompromised. However, as the game progresses, predictability goes out of the window as players move pieces haphazardly. 

Instability arises when the foundation is impacted, and the blocks become unbalanced. Without proper support systems everything comes tumbling to the ground. Applied to the organisational context, each block in a Jenga game is equivalent to the various causes of stress and burnout discussed above: i.e lack of role clarity, unmanageable workload, time pressure and poor reward and compensation. 

With instability, the tower tumbles and trust is broken; employees are disengaged, communication lines are severed, mental health issues become commonplace and finally productivity stalls. 

So, What Can Organisations Do? 

A trend that is said to impact the global economy is a growing and sincere focus amongst organisations on the human experience – putting a human face to the organisation. 

This is about creating positive support structures, personalising the organisational atmosphere to allow employees to find personal connection and meaning in their work. However, the data from this survey showed that 68% of employees find meaning in their work. 

How can organisations leverage on this to make their environments more conducive for work and enable employees to cope with the stress and high pressure that is characteristic of today’s world of business? 

“Organisations that place priority on the human experience were twice as likely to outperform their competitors over a three-year period. Deloitte Digital, 2020