When we use the phrase that someone is suffering from burn-out, we generally mean we see someone who has nothing left to give. Where does this come from? That question is this issue’s topic.

Often it seems that someone who is burnt-out must be suffering from exhaustion. But let’s look closer. Ever attended an intense play-off game gone into overtime? Or witnessed the end of a marathon? Chaperoned a bunch of rowdy 7 year olds through a birthday party at the zoo? These fit the definition of exhaustion. But after some rest, those pro athletes, those runners, and those parents are back in the saddle again. We see all sorts of examples where pro athletes bodies wear out but that is not burn-out. Burn out is when we no longer expend effort because we no longer care. Our passion, like Elvis, has “left the building”. In the workplace, we encounter this all the time. The fancy term for it is low engagement. Basically people who are doing enough to get by, no fire left in the belly. Or worse, they spread their disease to others. The “actively disengaged” is the term for them and the Blanchard Company has a name for them. These are the folks who have “quit and stayed”. Yikes!

What we believe is the root is actually competence. Specifically when people perform work where they are competent, but brings them little or no satisfaction. You may have significant abilities but little personal interest. You put in energy and things get done for there is no personal return on that investment. Over time, all this competence sans passion accumulates. And eventually we have that person who may be trapped. They really should go find something else to do. Something where their heart and mind shows up on Monday morning and not just their hind-end. Their own success may have propelled them to this point. Picture the Chief Editor of the newspaper who no longer is a journalist. He is surrounded by journalists. He oversees journalists. He himself was a journalist. But he no longer “authors” anything. He edits. It is not surprising when these folks quit their jobs and head for the woods to write their novels. They want to get back to their sweet spot. Marshall Goldsmith calls it “finding ones Mojo”. The easiest example comes to us from ESPN. No pro sports team could ever succeed with low engagement. Imagine a pep talk before the big game where the coach starts with “Well I know some of you really don’t like this football stuff but I’m going to ask you to reach deep today and hopefully find some enjoyment.” How absurd. It is already a given that those sitting in the locker room are committed and completely engaged in their profession. The coach’s advice will be about maintaining focus. About thinking about the opponent. About digging deep if they are underdogs. But never is it about “I hope you like this stuff”. So we caution you to watch for this in your own life. Your competence may get you rewarded and accepted. But without your own personal joy coming along with it, there will be a void building between your job and your passion. Then down the road, maybe months or even years, you will find yourself looking across a chasm of dissatisfaction. And potentially in the ranks of the low engaged folks. Fight against this. Mine for your passion in your vocation and if it is missing, start a fresh quest to regain it. Job rotation, shift in assignment, special projects, something that lights the fire again. And keeps the flames fanned. Embrace exhaustion if it comes from giving it all away and leaving it on the field. That is actually a positive sign of full on passion and commitment. The committed give it all away. The disengaged want to save some for the weekend….

Guard against burn out in yourself and those you lead. What might that look like next week?

Keeping you sharp. The Whetstone.