The journey from love to feeling burned out

A very close friend of mine had been ranting about her job since the past couple of months. Now this is the same person who once used to absolutely love this very same job, and talk very highly of her boss, colleagues, work environment and her own levels of happiness quotient. But what went wrong? Here’s some background.

My friend is an extremely enterprising and resourceful person, who gives her best at everything. She is what most of us want to be like and I am seriously proud of her. Now, she had been working with a start up since its inception, for the last three years. In this timeframe, she got the chance to work with the founders through the initial struggles, uncertainties, pressures, challenges and triumphs and work all the way up till the company had firmly secured its grounding.

Because of the small team size in the beginning, each team member had to take up complete responsibilities for multiple roles and literally had to accomplish herculean tasks involving multiple skillsets, almost without any external support. The benefits of such a system contributed to the immense growth of the employees in multiple areas. My friend not only became extremely skilled but she also acquired the capability to finish assignments in all the areas with remarkable quality and speed. Her reputation for her skillsets started to grow more and more, not just within the company, but even outside the organization. Owing to her impeccable grip in each one of these roles and optimal underlying planning, she would deliver all of these to perfection and would often exceed expectations . She was an inspiration for everyone and her boss ,team members and the whole organization started to count on her even more and more.

This continued for a while and things seemed good. However, there was one problem. Her responsibilities started to grow more and more and she would burn out every now and then.

Even though she was naturally able to accomplish so much more than usual, her boss would not settle for that, he grew hungrier.

Some of these tasks were inherently complex and weren’t easy to do and she would work very hard and put extra number of hours to put the pieces together but she would make them look easy and effortless on the front and would deliver to perfection, every single time. This somehow gave an impression to the boss that she can do much more. The fact that she was able to do the work of 5 people wasn’t enough, he would like to see her jump her efficiency to the level of 10 people or even 12 ,15 overnight. As time passed he would even overlook or not pay attention to all the hard work she put in to accomplish the tasks even though what she was delivering was beyond industry standards and beyond what she is expected to do and more often, beyond good.

Since his boss was used to seeing her deliver like that so consistently, that level of work was his new normal and he had taken all the goodness for granted.

That’s understandable because it’s human nature to aim for a certain level and once he reaches that level, it becomes his new normal. He wants to shoot for the next one without due appreciation or acknowledgement of how far he has come. This leads to a tendency of doing more and more, without looking at the existing achievements in a positive light.

This phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation” is one of the reasons for misery that we see around us.

But as a leader of an organization,probably one is expected to change the default hardwiring a little bit and learn to balance out what he has, how far he has come with where he wants to go. I am no leader and I do not lead big teams but I have had the privilege of working with people, individuals and teams and driven few projects and assignments every now and then and I have also made mistakes and learnt from them. In this case, as an outsider and someone who is not bogged down into the details of the processes, tasks, complexities and organizational goals like them, it did not take rocket science for me to get an understanding of what was possibly going wrong.

My friend and her boss were so much deeply entangled in the details and processes that it led to a state of overwhelment, which made it challenging for them to precisely pinpoint what was going wrong between them. The boss could not think of anything other than putting more pressure on my friend to do more, be more, grow smarter, faster, better and meet his demands that were humanly impossible. He was completely blinded by his vision and goals and my friend kept on trying to accommodate all of them until she could not handle it anymore and she was exhausted, drained and broken.Inspite of her repeated attempts to communicate this issue to her boss,there was no improvement.So she finally put down her papers and decided to call it quits.

There was something that was wrong all throughout and there was a mismatch and an imbalance that should have been fixed and something like this is probably not so uncommon in the professional and corporate world of modern times. As we discussed about this, things started to become clear around the root cause behind this problem and we mutually agreed on some points. In the process, she suggested that I write about these insights as it’s a common scenario out there and many people are stuck in similar situations and looking for answers. So,here are some of my observations.

1) Inspiration went missing

No matter how talented, lucky, gifted or even capable people are, they must continue to stay inspired. The day people stop getting inspired about who they are and what they are doing, it’s all downhill from there. So we must prioritise protecting inspiration at all costs, at times even before talent, progress, promotion and other such parameters. Inspiration is pretty much all we have, it’s like that fuel that runs this vehicle called life. Hence it must be safeguarded and refilled from time to time. Talent, gifts, skillsets, achievements, progress all are by products of inspiration. An inspired individual with average skillset is far better than a highly capable person with no inspiration, because the inspired individual will do whatever it takes to become or do whatever is required.

2) Inspiration is hard

Inspiration is not soft, cheesy or old school. In a world with so many complexities, bombardments and negativity, it takes hard work to stay inspired. In this case, the boss had no idea that if his employee loses her inspiration, if he doesn’t step up and connect with her and do whatever it takes to refill her inspiration tank, (may be on a personal level ) and to make her feel important, things are not going to come back to normal. That could even mean sending her off on a complete holiday for a couple of months, that would be a hard decision but if that’s what she really needs and she is really important for you, you must be ready to take that chance. We are in this for the long term not short term and at the end of the day we must make sure that even though things may not be perfect now , it should work out in the overall scheme of things.This analysis requires a long term view. It could be a gamble but some of these gambles do pay off (considering there was no other option in this case). Probably these handful of difficult calls with the long term view is what sets a good leader apart from the rest.

3) Assumptions can cost you

What we think might inspire somebody and get that fire in the belly might be totally different from what actually inspires the individual. We cannot fall into the trap of making assumptions about somebody. Human beings are complicated creatures and more than that we are imperfect creatures. Even the greatest amongst us have had their down times, failures and weak moments. Leaders should make time to connect and understand what’s going on with the other person, from a point of humility keeping all his predispositions aside and find out whether he is able to fulfill the person’s deepest needs, at least for the most part. In this case, even if the boss knew the importance of keeping his employee inspired, he probably thought he was already doing what was required to inspire her and keep her happy and driven.

4) Avoid the perfection trap

We must understand that we as humans often tend to seek perfection.The best among us probably know where to draw the line in perfectionism and make a move because the nature of perfectionism is infinity and if we do not do a proper ground reality check and draw a line somewhere (may be at times with acceptable levels of insanity ,drive and delusion), things are going to grow out of proportion. Even though the great leaders like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or others would go to highest extremes to accomplish their grand (often so called delusional and unreasonable) pursuits and their teams would go nuts in the process, they somehow managed to strike the fine balance. Even amidst the extreme stresses and strains, they would somehow keep the inspiration tanks of their team members filled, keep the resources intact and find a way to recover from temporary glitches and losses and through stresses, strains and challenges in the short term, managed to make things work remarkably well in the long run. But these leaders are rare and in the real world its easy to blow things out of proportion ,when you operate at such levels. There is a reason they are among the half a dozen great ones of all times.

In clear concise terms, every leader (or every human being) has four choices.

1)Perfect progress

2)Imperfect progress

3)No progress.

4)Go backwards (Lose more than gain, DISASTER)

If you are able to stay at 1, good. But if 1 is not working out and you’ve tried everything, its probably time to let go of certain aspects, re-evaluate the goals,priorities,tasks,resources and consider coming down to 2. Some progress is better than no progress, something is better than nothing. If 1 is not working out and you are adamant at sticking to it, there is a very good chance that you blow it out of proportion and fall right back to to 3 or 4. This evaluation looks simple but not easy, and could be one of the major reasons of some of the failures around us.

Hence, a heightened awareness around this perfection trap is highly desirable. In this case, the boss was completely delusional about what she could or could not accomplish and was blinded by his unreasonable expectations to an extent that he overlooked (for the most part) all the great work she was doing , and without due consideration of the fact that she is producing so much more that usual already , he doubled his already high expectations and completely and disrespectfully dismissed anything below that. In the blind pursuit of getting diamond , he was forgetting the fact that what he had was already Gold (in a world of silvers and bronze’s) and that he was just few inches away from losing that gold for ever. That looks like a recipe for disaster.

The job of a good leader or a manager is to enable and shape even an average individual to do good or even great things and this was the case of a highly gifted and valued individual and hence extreme care must be exercised to make sure that these special individuals at least stay at their peak for the most part if not raise their game.

So the main observation from all the facts is that the boss wasn’t willing to settle for that little but necessary amount of sacrifice and wasn’t willing to reposition his expectations to fix things and take those difficult but necessary calls for the fear of losing organisational progress or the fear of not able to meet deadlines. But in the process,he ended up losing an important and highly valued and capable individual who was instrumental in a large portion of the organisation’s progress so far . To lose an asset like that possibly means losing so much of the progress and organizational growth in the coming times.

Did you like what you just read. If it resonates with some part of you, do share your thoughts! :)