Employee Burnout – Why Great Leaders Can Put Out the Fire

Employee Burnout – Why Great Leaders Can Put Out the Fire


“When everything is important nothing is important.” ~ Brian Mulroney


Premise – Employee engagement and overall poor morale threatens our economic future – both in this country and globally. Up to 70% of today’s workers freely indicate they are no longer engaged and/or burned out in their work – and a great many are either actively searching for a new job, privately praying for relief, or going through the motions and still drawing a paycheck.


The Cost – In this country alone – somewhere between $450 and $550 billion. Yes, you read that number correctly – and if we assume similar levels of disengagement around the world – that figure climbs to almost incalculable levels. Let’s carry that to a number that is easier to get our minds around – McLean and Company suggests an estimated $3400 per every $10,000 of salary is lost for the average disengaged employee – a stunning number.


The Reasons Why – If we are to believe Gallup (who estimated the dollar impact above and remain one of the greatest sources of objective insight on worker engagement in the world) the reasons are many – but they begin with basics that most consider incontrovertible – the role of the leader or leaders in:

  • Outlining job expectations for employees
  • Providing clear goals for performance
  • Holding workers accountable, and
  • Yes – offering feedback that helps them to improve.


In fact, Gallup’s 2016 study focused just on millennials indicated that simply introducing these most basic of leadership principles could actually double employee engagement.


And yet the percentage of managers/supervisors/leaders who can’t or won’t fulfill what might be considered management fundamentals is up to 70% (and if those numbers look familiar, they should – there is almost a 1:1 relationship in incompetent/ineffective bosses and disengaged workers.)


Let’s recap – Employee disengagement is rampant, costs us billions, and yet there seems to be an immediate remedy that can drastically improve the worker condition.


The challenge – that prescription must begin with developing legitimate leaders – and it’s a treatment that many companies and industries are not prepared to pursue.


An interesting dichotomy – one might posit, especially since almost any organization, if offered a definitive plan proven to enhance profitability – would move aggressively to pursue it – and yet every year otherwise progressive firms step over the dollars of employee engagement to pick up the pennies of the latest marketing strategy or technological innovation.


Ignoring once again the human factor that distinguishes truly great companies from the norm.


So why do few leaders actually lead? Here are a few of the major reasons:


  • Many managers don’t know what they’re supposed to do – and simply don’t understand the role of the leader in providing clear expectations and coaching to that standard. The root cause – questionable leadership selection standards, poorly devised emerging/future leader processes, and dubious management development training. Minus these basics many companies default to a hit or miss strategy in cultivating leaders. The numbers suggest they “hit” about 25-30% of the time – a poor average.
  • Many managers don’t appreciate the importance of their assignment – and why their focus on direct reports in the form of communication, coaching, and job performance reinforcement remains arguably their greatest priority. The root cause – no clear emphasis on leadership’s role in the company – the “why” behind the work.
  • Many managers have never been exposed to a transformative leader – and as a result, default to transactional management (at best) in their interaction with employees. It’s difficult to demonstrate a behavior set if you have never actually seen it yourself. The root cause – most companies can point to less than 10% of their leadership team as the prototype for what “should be.”
  • Many managers don’t know how to lead – no concept of the role, no appreciation of the nuances involved in working with others, or understanding of what their assignment should be. The root cause – poorly developed leadership training – and little to no executive coaching exposure.
  • Many managers suggest they simply don’t have time to focus on the “soft skills” involved in coaching, motivating, or even communicating with their employees. Like others, they are engulfed so much in the storm of the day-to-day that they fail to recognize the only true shelter is the covenant built via strong employee engagement.
  • And finally (and perhaps most important) – many companies don’t recognize the double-digit losses in profitability and productivity that pour out the door everyday because of the disengagement/burn-out factor. Because there is no agreement on either the scope or the source of the problem there is no agreement on the solution – and the default often falls into one of the following “fixes.”
    • Another engagement survey (the logic – let’s reconfirm a malady we already know exists – but if we aren’t prepared to treat then at least we will diagnose it to death)
    • A better rewards program (the logic – if we can’t cultivate employee engagement we will buy it)
    • The latest wave of employee driven task forces (the logic – we may not be able to actually fix the problem so we will get as many people as possible to join us in discussing it)
    • A rebranded vision/culture/mission mantra (the logic – nothing beats poor morale than a declaration that says we hope things will change)


The above describes in general terms the epidemic of Employee Disengagement – to include some of its causes – and the tepid responses many companies take to address the plague. The larger reality – few senior leaders have stopped to quantify how even a marginal improvement in worker engagement can drive incredible returns.


As a result – nothing changes.


But there is a path forward – at least for the few who decide the time for change has come. The first steps begin with a remarkably simple formula.


Building World Class Managers


The Gallup results compel – if for no reason than they point out the simplest way to positively impact employee engagement is through management. Build best in class leaders and we potentially increase profitability exponentially.




Three basic steps any company intent on actually winning the employee disengagement battle:


  1. Establish a standard for leaders at every level that does more than speak to driving results, enhancing profitability, and delivering on the bottom line. Make sure there is a competency model that addresses:
    1. Management basics (most companies can comfortably point to subjects like business acumen, recruiting, administration, etc. – in effect, speaking to some version of the Drucker model for management – planning, staffing, directing, controlling, and organizing). At minimum – this sets a foundation for transactional management – and note how often even these basics are not taking place according to Gallup.
    2. Leadership basics (second level skills that speaks to subjects that include communication, team building, creating followership, establishing trust, enabling others to act, creating a vision for the future, etc.) The intent – establish a foundation for transformative leadership – distinguishing it from traditional management. (The great miss for many organizations.)
    3. Career navigation (self-development). No leader who is incapable of leading self or charting his or her own career course will successfully manage others – but that involves helping every prospective supervisor develop a sense of purpose and direction – and the practical tools to optimize that journey. Even more important – applying those learning’s in dialogue with direct reports.
  2. Create developmental tracks for emerging leaders, first and second line leaders, and senior leaders that include training, coaching, and exposure to the advanced skill sets cited above. Two key points –
    1. If that track means periodic classroom instruction only – a recipe for failure.
    2. If it’s focused only on first and second line leaders and not senior leaders – it will never gain organizational traction
  3. Create a platform for managers to actually hone their skillsand in a safe environment where the total focus is on leadership. Best in class companies do three things better than the norm in this regard. Specifically:
    1. They contract with an executive coach – creating a dedicated sounding board for first and second line leaders to actually practice leadership – discuss its application – and take the classroom study to the real world. The value proposition of engaging an expert neutral party is proven to create immediate lift – especially for leaders who struggle to complete day-to-day tasks and are often reluctant to reach out to their direct supervisor.
    2. They get senior leadership buy-in on the value of the above points – to include quantifying estimated value of addressing employee engagement.
    3. They expand the executive coach vehicle to senior leaders – a concession to the fact that coaching and leadership counsel diminishes as individuals advance in their careers.


Disengagement and employee burnout is not a new phenomenon – nor is it so simple that we can simply flip a switch and eliminate it.


Ultimately employee engagement ties back to a few basic (and universal) principles – providing every worker with a sense of purpose, a source of direction, and the practical tools to navigate their own journey remain the foundational points.


We do that only by joining in the larger war to cultivate world-class managers – once and for all confirming the power of a transformative leadership in the battle to optimize employee contributions – and win our economic future.


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