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Push Back or Burn Out

Push Back or Burn Out

More and more leaders are telling me that they’re totally burnt out. The factors behind the increasing levels of work stress are many and varied – burnout is a complex issue, and it’s become a really hot topic in the last couple of years.

I’m pretty confident, though, that if you apply a couple of relatively simple and practical remedies, you will be able to protect yourself from burnout. Simple? yes! Practical? Definitely! But easy? Absolutely not!

Why? Because to implement these techniques effectively, you have to learn how to say no.

One of the most common drivers of burnout is overwork – pure and simple… and, I’m not talking about working hard on high-value initiatives that make a difference. That should be steady state for any ambitious and competent leader. 

I’m talking about the never-ending stream of seemingly low-value or irrelevant tasks that land on your desk. Work that has little purpose or connection to value and overall team and company performance.

These tasks often come either as mandates from above, or bright ideas from below. And both can be just as damaging – so you need to learn how to push back.

Obviously, you don’t want to become the “department of no”, but you do need to be able to clearly articulate your team’s position: how can you maximize the value you can deliver with the resources you have allocated?

In Ep.61 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, I outlined many of the situations where you may need to say no, and how to approach each circumstance. That Ep. is really worthwhile revisiting.

The easiest way to say “no” is to lead the other person through your thinking so that they work it out for themselves. If you give them the rationale, and help them to understand your perspective, they’ll most likely understand why it should be a “no” before you have to say it.

In order to do this, you have to be incredibly clear on your program of work… what are you doing, and how does it create value? If you have real clarity on this, it opens the door to a discussion about the relative value of any work your team is asked to take on.

It’s generally the case that you can’t add more tasks to your work program without somehow compromising what you’re already doing: through either late delivery, reduction in quality, or increased risk. So, when you’re asked to take on more, it becomes a question of whether or not the value the new task would bring justifies the compromises that have to be made to deliver it.

Unless you can articulate the value proposition of your work program clearly, you can’t even have that conversation: there’s no real basis for pushing back, other than to say “we’re already too busy”.

So, when you’re faced with the prospect of having to push back, you can follow a few simple steps:

  1. Articulate the value of the proposed task in relation to your existing work program
  2. Give your rationale for either considering the request or pushing back on it
  3. Be flexible, and demonstrate a willingness to say yes
  4. But also be highly rational and decisive about why taking it on might be counter-productive for the company
  5. Explain your constraints, and explain your drivers: the more insight you can give your boss about your thinking, the more likely it is that they’ll listen to you! 

Of course, to do any of this, you’ll need to let go of your need to be liked – respect before popularity – but that’s another topic altogether!

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