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Avoiding Burnout

Jerry Sloan worked for 23 years as head coach for the NBA’s Utah Jazz – the fourth-longest tenure of any coach in any major professional sport. Sure, he was successful in that role (having only one losing season in all those years), but one wonders how he did not burn out in a job that is high pressure and had him coaching million dollar players who often wield more power than the coach. Burnout has become so prevalent enough across a wide range of vocational pursuits that it has become a medical term and the subject of several studies.

The burden of being in charge can wear down the most successful managers. But often burnout is a function of not working through others effectively, taking on too much responsibility for the outcomes that must be accomplished to achieve success. John Baldoni, in his Harvard Business Review blog, states that the best way to overcome the drive that made you successful in the first place—“your relentless pursuit of perfection”—is to “shift your focus from your own success to your team’s success.”1 Some of the behaviors that cause burnout are naturally occurring things. Here are the symptoms and ways to overcome them.

  • You are good at what you do. you probably got where you are because of your tenacity and ability to problem-solve. Being in charge, however, has widened your scope and increased the magnitude of the results you must achieve. Being the head problem solver will consume your time and create a burden that can lead to burnout. The way to avoid this is to enable others by assigning them significant outcomes. Make big jobs, and you will no longer be the bottleneck—nor will you be spending all your weekends catching up on your own work.

  • You think you have to know everything. Acknowledge that even if you do a lot of things well, you can’t do everything well. Even if you did the work of your direct reports well at one time, you are at least one step removed from that work now. Acknowledging that you don’t know everything will allow you to ask more questions, listen more, and not take the work back from those who should be doing it.

  • You think you have to motivate people – all the time. This is wasted effort because you cannot motivate another person. Instead, think about the work that must be done and assign it as important outcomes. Big jobs with significant outcomes tend to be motivating.
Here is the irony: Not only are leaders more likely to become burned out when they take on all the responsibility or become the head problem solver, but their employees are more likely to burn out, too. Lists of tedious tasks—especially ones that are communicated as tedious and unimportant—are the most likely to burn people out. Allowing others to take on greater responsibility and make more decisions is the solution. The result is getting more done and achieving better results—using fewer resources. As Baldoni asserts, “When you delegate authority to others so that the whole team wins, it has a way of leading to even greater success.”

Jerry Sloan endured by avoiding the mistakes of trying to be all knowing and not sharing ownership. His assistant coach (Phil Johnson), who was with him for all of those years, remarked, “The other thing is he really does delegate authority very, very well. Very well. That’s why it makes it fun to coach here.”2 In addition to giving his assistants big jobs, Sloan didn’t burn himself out trying to motivate. “I never try to push anybody. I’ve always believed motivation’s one of the most overused terms in sports. You’ve got to do it yourself. If you’re sitting out there waiting for somebody to push you, you’re going to be waiting 10 years.”

Ultimately, getting results is always the key. It is best to do that utilizing the full skills and abilities of the whole team—and learning to enjoy the team’s success.

1John Baldoni, Harvard Business Review online blog, “Avoid Burnout by Focuing on Your Team,” November 8, 2010. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/11/avoid_burnout_by_focusing_on_y.html
2Salt Lake Tribune, November 29, 2010. Quotes, “Part Two – Jazz, NBA Coaches and O’Connor Discuss Sloan, Williams, Bell.” http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/blogsjazznotes/50771135-62/think-guys-deron-game.html.csp

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