Lead Through Strengths


In this episode, Lisa tackles the topic of managing employee burnout. She uses the example of an overwatered plant: if you see the leaves turning yellow, your first thought is to add more water. But sometimes yellow leaves are a sign that the plant is overwatered—by adding more, you’re just drowning it. In the same way, many actions managers take to help their employees actually make things worse. In this episode, Lisa shows you how to discern the true causes of burnout and teaches you how to help in the right ways.

Strengths Tools

One of the best ways leaders can build a strengths-based culture is to offer an appreciation of strengths in action. If you'll notice what works, you'll get more of what works because people can replicate what they've already done well. On our homepage, you can download this awesome tool that offers you 127 easy ideas for recognizing your team. Scroll down and look for the box that says "Great Managers Notice What Works".

Can Working In Your Weakness Zone Lead To Burnout?

I made a comment in a team StrengthsFinder session the other day. It was that when you find yourself procrastinating on the same task over and over again, it might be a sign that it’s in your weakness zone.

A few faces in the crowd made the lightbulb look. A few had this look of, “Whoa, I never even considered that.” Pretty quickly, they started asking about what signs and symptoms to look out for.

There are three important symptoms that are clues you’re frequently working in your weakness zone:

  1. You’re frustrated.
  2. You feel soul-sucked.
  3. You’re burned out.

As a regular listener, you hear me say all the time that using your strengths at work will strengthen your performance. So wouldn’t it also hold true that using your weaknesses at work would weaken your performance?

When you think about yourself, it’s easy to notice these symptoms: You know when you’re personally in a state of burnout or frustration. You know when work is feeling like soul-sucking drudgery, even if you’re trying to not show it on the outside. Sometimes these symptoms can sneak up on you over time, yet once they hit you hard, you know they’re there. Now you simply have to figure out what’s causing it and do something about it.

If you’re a people manager or a talent management professional, this gets tougher. That’s because often the same symptoms show up in people who are disengaged out of boredom or lack of care are the symptoms that show up when someone is giving every ounce of energy to the job … only it’s in a weak area, so it sucks the life out of them.

People are kind of like plants in this way. You know how the leaves turn yellow if your plant needs water and is unhealthy? They show the same symptom when they’re overwatered. So you might have a plant that is drowning and you think, “This plant is yellow. It must need water.” So you water it. And it drowns more. It gets worse.

People are the same. They might be soul-sucked from working in their weakness zone. Rather than turning yellow, they turn disengaged. They appear bored or detached. They have less fire and zeal in their attitude. So you try to find them more work to offer them a challenge. And oops … you were over-watering their weakness zone already. Things only get worse.

My mother in law helped me fix this with my plants — she gave me a moisture meter. If a leaf is yellow, I can stick a probe in the ground and see if it’s too wet or too dry. Yessss! I stopped killing plants. An easy fix. But what about humans? They’re not that easy. There’s no strengths-zone probe. You have to have conversations to dig deeper.

Let’s look at an example for each of the three symptoms so you can explore the kind of conversations you might have as a team to uncover these draining weakness-zone responsibilities.

1. Frustration

What to do about it: If you have a team member who is mature and highly accountable, they’re not going to complain and kvetch. So be on the lookout for the tiniest comments about a project that’s eating them up. For example, they may make light of banging their head against the wall.

Even if you can’t assign them fast-moving projects without red tape because you’re in a culture with a lot of bureaucracy, think about things like assigning them to the front end of a project and then handing it off to a partner who thinks it’s fun to get to the finish line and use persistence to solve problems. Or, you can keep an eye out for projects that create something new versus maintaining or changing long-standing traditions.

2. Feeling soul-sucked

What to do about it: If you have someone calling on talents that run counter to their values, it is going to suck their soul. You can often see this one on people’s faces. When people are performing regular job duties that insult their personal values, they will procrastinate. They will resist. They will roll their eyes. Even if they’re mature and they wouldn’t literally roll their eyes, you can usually see subtle signs show up in offhand comments or in how they act.

Be on watch so you can open up a conversation that helps them reframe it by approaching the situation through another talent. Or, help them address the conflict constructively so that they can have a productive conversation with the person or team who hold the conflicting value.

3. Burnout

What to do about it: This one is easy to spot in yourself, yet tougher to spot in high performers. When top performers are burned out, they try to keep going. They often use brute force to keep performing. They’ll stay up later. They’ll skip workouts. They’ll push through. There will often be few signs of trouble, at least for a while. For other employees, burnout is easier to spot because they appear and act disengaged. That’s easy to see and address — it’s your top performers that you need to check in with more deliberately because they often won’t say anything for months.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard way too many stories where burnout led top performers to start a job search in the background because they don’t want to ask for help or appear like a weak performer by bringing up their burnout.

Now you have three symptoms to look for in yourself or on your team, four if you count procrastination as a bonus symptom. Of course, there are many actions you can take to get out of your weakness zone.

Action steps to take after you see symptoms

  • Swap tasks around on the team.
  • Partner up with someone who loves doing that thing you loathe.
  • Use one of your Top 5 StrengthsFinder talent themes to get the same outcome in a new way.
  • Name the situation, because simply knowing that it’s driving you crazy will often diffuse a lot of the stress from it.
  • Make a Stop Doing list — ask stakeholders, managers, peers, and customers more questions about how they use the results of the work that you’re doing (the work that’s sucking the life out of you). Often, participants from my training events tell me that the task isn’t even required any longer.
  • Reframe the situation. For example, a recent virtual training attendee told me that he was late on his expense reports 100% of the time. He got scolded for it every month and didn’t care. That is, until his colleague in the accounting department told him that he was killing her — she was staying late and missing her deadlines for closing out the books every month. He quickly mended his ways by tapping into his Relator talent, which made him care about the outcome because he cared about her.

Questions To Ponder

What’s going on with you at work? What makes you feel frustrated regularly? What happens in the weeks and months when you feel burned out? What responsibilities feel soul-sucking?

Then apply this to people around you. If you supervise people, this is important to watch for. Open up the conversation. Talk to your direct reports in one-on-ones about what responsibilities and projects make them feel alive and excited and which ones make them feel consistent dread and stress?

Since your team members will have stronger performance by working in their strengths, what can you do to align their work and their thinking with their natural talents?

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Direct download: weakness-zone-burnout.mp3
Category:careers -- posted at: 2:30am CST