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Fast-track Your Team to Burnout

October 2021

A year and a half of pandemic.

Many of us have come to appreciate and understand the concept of grace in a new light. What once may have been expected manners, now tips toward bigger gestures such as forgiveness and judgment-free support. Have we gone too far?


Being human to each other is a great way to build and sustain a great culture. There are rules, regulations, and boundaries of fair play, but that doesn't mean we have to disregard the humanity of the people doing the work.

When people ask if it's gone too far, they typically have something specific in mind. That particular instance where they felt cheated. Their peer got time off for "who knows what" and they couldn't get an extra day of vacation. People working from home are certainly being lazy and its not fair.

People will fill in gaps to stories they don't know with things that they do; typically drama and intrigue with just a hint of playing the role of the victim. "Every time I message Jon he's never at his desk. He must really love working from home because he never works!" "Why does Ann even say she comes into the office. She's never at her desk. I'm not sure her computer has been on in a week."

In these imaginary real-life situations, it could be that Jon is at his desk. A lot. But when this one person messaged him twice in the last week, he responded within 3 minutes, but he didn't respond instantly so the assumption was that he wasn't around. In telling the story, the speaker wasn't technically wrong, but they were technically dishonest about the context.

For Ann, the people clocking her desk and computer hours do a great job of arriving and leaving on time, every day. They don't see Ann in an hour before they get there, off to meetings and site visits, back for another hour at her desk, then home to work a little more. Not that that behavior should be a badge of honor, but assuming Ann isn't doing what's expected of her is no award-winning conclusion either.

Typically and unfortunately, people can readily jump to the worst probable conclusion. When leaders do nothing to refute the damaging rumor, they help the culture of the organization disintegrate. There is some information that can and cannot be shared legally, but there are ways to address assumptions.

"Ann is never here." "That's partially right. She's here before and after regular hours and in meetings or doing site visits during the regular part of the day."

"Why doesn't Jon ever message me?" "He does, though. You got the information you needed. It may have been not in the timeline you had in mind, but you got your work done on time and so did he. Seems like it's working out."

Without accountability for bad information, people will think and believe the worst. Additionally, leaders who fail to hold people accountable for poor behavior (or performance) also run the risk of sending people toward burnout.

When people see poor behavior that isn't addressed, they start to wonder why they work so hard to do so well. If Jesse can hold their job while doing less than minimum, why should I go above and beyond? This may be exacerbated by a lack of rewards and recognition. Even then, it's not only about the extremes; over- and under-achievers. Folks in the middle are certainly affected as well.

Failing to hold people accountable demonstrates a lack of care, lack of concern, and unwillingness to have a potentially difficult conversation. Failing on accountability is rarely seen as being nice, accommodating, or supportive even if that's the intent of the leader avoiding the accountability conversation.

People are working from home; that's great if it works for them. If it turns out they are not getting their work done, then a conversation is needed. The conversation should not be, "This isn't working out so come back to the office." The conversation is about the employee's performance, what it was before WFH, what it is now, and how to close that gap. It's intentional and thoughtful accountability compared to taking the easy road of "must work office now no more home." (grammatically incorrect emphasis added)

When people see the same level of response to good behavior as poor, they might feel less reason to be engaged in their work. When they're less engaged, they disconnect with the purpose of their job. When they disconnect from purpose, they've just turned onto Burnout Road.

Grown up humans don't need punishment of others to feel better about themselves (well, mostly). They need to know there are expectations, a set of rules, that everyone is expected to work within. When people do great within those boundaries, it's great to say so! When they do less good or break the rules completely, it's also great to say so, though with less confetti.

Failure to hold people accountable is a way to fast-track the entire culture to burnout. Avoiding burnout and increasing employee retention can be possible when accountability is used consistently, fairly, and constructively.

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