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138. Is Your "Servant Leadership" Causing Your Team to Burn Out?

You care about your team and you want to serve them. But in an attempt to lessen their struggles, are your actions actually contributing to their burnout? In this episode we discuss:

  • What it means to serve as a leader

  • The well-intentioned behaviors of empathetic leaders that can contribute to burnout

  • What to do instead

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While it's not perfect, we offer this transcription by CastMagic for those who prefer to read or who are hearing impaired.

Teri Schmidt [00:00:00]:

Hey. If you're listening to this podcast, I'm pretty sure that you want the best for your team, because you want to see your team members develop and thrive. Just like a caring parent, you don't like to see your team members struggle. As an empathetic or servant leader, you do all you can to provide support so that they don't have to struggle. And because you care so much, you might not like what I'm about to tell you. That some of the leadership practices that you might be tempted to employ to help your team members avoid the struggle may actually do more harm than good. And I wouldn't be sharing this if I hadn't made the same mistakes myself, as a leader and as a parent. But no worries.

Teri Schmidt [00:00:46]:

Once you are aware of the risky habits and their impact, change becomes easier. So today, we'll talk about what the well intentioned behaviors are, the potential negative impact they can have, and what to do instead. I'm Teri Schmidt, founder of Stronger to Serve Coaching and Team Building, where we believe that leadership is about courageously using your talents to make a way for others to courageously use theirs. And this is the Strong Leaders Serve podcast.

So 9 episodes ago, we talked about how you can serve as a leader without burning out yourself. And a couple of weeks after that, in my strong leaders serve LinkedIn newsletter, I reflected on what it means and what it doesn't mean to serve as a leader. Again, with the intent of avoiding your burnout as the leader. I began to think about how the leadership behaviors associated with the incorrect interpretation of what it means to serve as a leader may not only be contributing to your burnout, but may also be causing your team to burnout, a double whammy of sorts.

Teri Schmidt [00:02:09]:

First, let's talk about burnout. Gallup's research says that 3 out of 10 employees, that's 30%, feel burned out very often or always. So in other words, 3 out of 10 people are experiencing emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced effectiveness at work as the result of chronic stress. Clearly, this is a huge problem that needs systemic team and individual level changes. But today, I want to narrow in on one set of behaviors that we as leaders can fall into in an effort to be more caring and empathetic, that instead of helping solve the burnout problem, can actually make it worse. Before we jump into that behavior, let's step back and review what we mean by serving as a leader. Now you hear this every episode, and you heard it this episode, but I'll repeat it again. At Stronger to Serve, we define serving as a leader as courageously using your talents to make a way for others to courageously use theirs.

Teri Schmidt [00:03:17]:

What you don't hear in that definition chin is that you are elevating your team to the manager position, that you're in a sense giving them your job. You don't hear in that definition that your team has to know everything that you do. And you don't hear in that definition that you have to make all decisions by consensus. And the one misinterpretation that I wanna focus on today is that to serve as a leader does not mean to jump in and rescue your team members from every difficult situation. Now you may not think that you're at risk of doing this. But have you ever jumped in to complete a team member's task? Spent your weekends redoing their work? Or stepped in to speak for them in meetings? I know I have. Side note. I've also fought against jumping in and rescuing my kids at times.

Teri Schmidt [00:04:11]:

So why did I do it? Well, sometimes it was because it just seemed quicker to do it myself instead of helping them to do it better. Other times, I wanted to protect them from the pain of potential failure. Or sometimes they just seem particularly stressed. And I wanted to save them from that, or to help out in just a small way that I could. How about you? What are your reasons? The problem is that when we're rescuing our team members by finishing their tasks, redoing their work, or speaking for them in meetings. We're falling into the drama triangle as defined by Steven Cartman. In this triangle, there are 3 roles. So if you can picture the different vertices, one of them is the rescuer.

Teri Schmidt [00:04:58]:

Some people call this the hero. The other is the victim. And the third is the persecutor. We're gonna focus particularly on the rescuer and the victim here because that's what's most relevant for what we're talking about today. Now the rescuer or the hero doesn't want anyone to feel bad, so they say and do things that make the immediate pain go away without dealing with the core issue. They seek value in being needed by others. The victim is at the effect of they feel like everything is being done to them, they feel powerless. Now when you're trying to serve as a leader, you can inadvertently put your team members into the victim role.

Teri Schmidt [00:05:41]:

They feel powerless. They may get into the habit of coming to you for answers instead of thinking for themselves. That's what happens when we jump in in the ways that I described. The problem is that when you are constantly jumping in, you are at risk for burnout because your workload gets essentially doubled if you only have 1 team member, and multiples of that for every other team member you have. But the thing that you might not be thinking about is that your team members are also at risk of burnout because your actions may be contributing to the number one cause of employee burnout according to Gallup, unfair treatment. In addition, the root cause of you feeling the need to jump in may also be indicators of the number three cause of employee burnout, unclear communication from managers. And the number 4 cause of burnout, lack of manager support. So let's talk about what you can do instead of rescuing, and we'll dig in a little bit more to how it relates to each of those causes of burnout that we called out.

Teri Schmidt [00:06:50]:

So you've probably heard me talk about this a lot. But instead of rescuing, 2 critical steps, are setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback. Clearly communicate your vision for the team and your expectations and trust your team to meet them. Serving as a leader is not about following everyone else's lead. Remember I said it's not about, in a sense, giving them your position. It is your job, particularly if you're a middle manager, to know and understand the vision of the organization so that you can set the specific vision for how your team collectively can support it. Yes. I see you, managers.

Teri Schmidt [00:07:32]:

I know you're in the messy middle, and I'd argue that you are in one of the most critical and the most difficult roles in your organization. You are the all important translators, taking the vision of your boss and maybe even her boss and turning it into reality with how you prioritize and oversee the completion of projects on your team. And not only that, you also have your team coming to you with their own needs, and you have to communicate those up to your boss. So like I said, the messy middle. Now if you are new to people leadership, you have a whole bunch of additional challenges to work with in addition to what I just talked about. Just one of those challenges is that you're in a transition where you have lost part of your identity. You no longer get rewarded for doing the work, but instead, for leading others to do the work well. And I know it's tempting to show that you care about your team by erring on one of the extremes when it comes to expectations and feedback.

Teri Schmidt [00:08:39]:

On one extreme, you may jump in to do or fix the work because that takes you back to the days that you were rewarded for doing the work. You get that dopamine hit of doing something well and accomplishing something, and being praised for doing it well. The problem is, that's a short term solution. It may alleviate your team member's current pain and your pain of not being sure they'll get it done to the quality and time standard that you need to please your leader, but the next time that you're in a similar situation, your team member won't have learned or grown, and they'll look to you to be rescued again. Not only that, but others on the team may feel like they're being unfairly treated. If you are always rescuing 1 team member and not the other, or maybe you don't have time to work with them on their development because you are too busy doing the tasks that one of your other team members should be doing. Now as we discussed, that is the number one cause of employee burnout, the feeling that you're being unfairly treated by your leader. Maybe you're like me, and you go to the other extreme.

Teri Schmidt [00:09:51]:

You're afraid of being a micromanager, and you wanna respect the talents and autonomy of your team. Do you, like I did, communicate the vision, but leave your team with unclear expectations? This not only slows work down, but also contributes to the number 3 cause of employee burnout, unclear communication from managers. For me, I thought I was just being nice and respecting other people, but I came to learn that that was not an effective way to get work done or to help others learn and develop. So instead, communicate the vision and be very clear about what a successful outcome looks like. What are the various milestones that must be met, and by when? How will you and your team member check-in with each other on completion and quality. And beyond you and the team member, what will be your team norms for everyone holding each other accountable? If you as a team have already defined beforehand what you're going to do if maybe during a weekly status check on your team projects, you discover that someone is way behind or hasn't quite met the expectations that everyone had for them. It'll be much easier to have that conversation if you've already talked about your plan for handling that beforehand. In addition to the clear expectations and clarity around when you'll check-in and what success looks like, the other thing that you can do is to plan for feedback and other support.

Teri Schmidt [00:11:24]:

And when I talk about planning for feedback, a couple of things I wanna thank you to think about that I've found have really helped my clients. Do you know how each team member prefers to receive feedback? I was working with a coaching client who had a team member who seemed to be very resistant to feedback, and my client was pretty frustrated. She talked about how her team member always seemed to get instantly defensive and dismissive of the feedback, and she wasn't sure what to do because she had never worked with anyone like that before. We work through discovering what this team member cared most about when it came to her work performance, and how we could prioritize tying the feedback to that. So she may not have cared about how she made other people feel, But instead, she cared about her work being seen as credible. So whenever my coaching client was giving her feedback, she needed to focus not as much on the feelings, but more about her confidence and her credibility and how that was coming through. In addition, we also plan for a conversation with the team member in which my client simply asked how she'd like to receive the feedback, both positive and negative. Did she prefer to get on a quick call right after a meeting that they were both part of? Did she prefer that my client summarize all of the experiences and they discuss it in a 1 on 1 conversation, or maybe even a Slack message.

Teri Schmidt [00:12:55]:

The important thing was that my client was targeting the feedback to something that her team member cared about, and she was delivering it in a way that her team member said would be most effective for her. Second, in terms of other types of support instead of jumping in repeatedly during stressful moments, use them as learning opportunities. What skills does your team member need to develop so that you don't have these stressful situations or you don't have as many crises? How can you stop giving your team member a fish every time a crisis erupts, and instead teach them to fish to prepare for future crises? If you already know their strengths, you can structure the learning in a way that builds upon those strengths. Also think about how can you provide small opportunities to practice skills that are just outside of their comfort zone while providing the necessary support or what we would call in learning and development, scaffolding. When you do this, you avoid the number 4 cause of employee burnout, the lack of manager support. But if you neglect this leadership responsibility, and instead jump in and rescue them every time you see them struggling because you want to be a servant leader, they may instead sense a lack of manager support as you are not giving them the opportunity to grow and develop. So remember, if you want to do your part in helping to avoid burnout for yourself and your team, resist the urge to jump in and rescue. And instead, set clear expectations, give clarity around what success looks like in terms of time and quality, provide feedback in a way that is customized to each team member, and offer support in a way that the entire team is involved in holding each other accountable, and in a way that develops your team members so that they can gradually grow to the point where you are no longer concerned about their work output, and you don't even have any temptation anymore to jump in and rescue them.

Teri Schmidt [00:15:11]:

Now listen. I know you care, and I know you are driven by the desire to help others. And I also know that you and your team are being asked to do more with less, and it may seem like you don't have time to deal with developing your team. But if you don't, you will not be truly serving them. And both you and they will be on the road to inevitable burnout. The difficulty and potential positive impact of your role as a leader are both immense. And you wouldn't be in that role if you weren't capable of handling it. Take it from me.

Teri Schmidt [00:15:47]:

Once you figure out how to help others grow and develop in a way that works for them and the team, there are few things in life that are more rewarding. That is how you truly serve as a leader. And if you ever need any support in figuring out how to conquer this challenge, I'm here for you. And until next time, lead with this quote by Harvey S. Firestone in mind: "It is only as we develop others that we permanently succeed."


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