In this episode, Lisa tackles the topic of preventing employee burnout. She uses the example of an under-watered 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, managers can accidentally make things worse by diagnosing the wrong issue with a team member. The symptoms (like the yellow leaves) can look the same on two different employees, while one is bored and one is over-capacity. In this episode, Lisa shows you how to discern the true causes of burnout and teaches you how to help.
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. They 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. Most of us have experienced these personally, so you know what they feel like on the inside. When you're a strengths champion or a people-leader, it's tough to watch for these weakness zone issues because your team members will often go to great lengths to not show these symptoms outwardly.
- You’re frustrated
- You feel soul-sucked
- You’re burned out
As a regular consumer of our Lead Through Strengths content, 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?
Personally Experiencing These Symptoms: When you think about yourself, it’s easy to notice these signs. 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.
Watching For Someone Else's Signs Of These Symptoms: 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 find them more work to offer them a challenge. And oops … you were over-watering their weakness zone already. Things will 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 lead with your team to uncover these draining weakness-zone responsibilities.
Symptom 1 - Frustration
StrengthsFinder Talent Theme for This Example - Activator: This person loves to get projects off the ground. They're most in flow at the start of something new.
Talent Insulting Situation for Someone Who Leads Through Activator: Fill up this person's day with red tape, lots of approval steps, surprise vetoes, delays, or "we should do first before we jump into action" type of moments, and this person will be more frustrated than a foodie forced to eat processed cheese for the month.
What To Do To Reduce Frustration At Work: If you have a direct report 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, try 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. People who lead through Activator get a charge when they're creating momentum. And they get drained when they get stuck or stalled by forces beyond their control.
Symptom 2 - Feeling Soul-Sucked
StrengthsFinder Talent Theme for This Example - Analytical: This person loves to work with facts and data. They're most in flow when they can use logic to solve problems or bring insights.
Talent Insulting Situation for Someone Who Leads Through Analytical: If you, as a manager, fill up this person's days with emotional, ambiguous, or un-provable issues, you'll be killing them from the inside out. They'll feel as lifeless as a mathematician who tries to logically explain to her 3 year old (for the 97th time) why his tantrum will not yield favorable results.
What To Do To Keep Your Team Members From Having A Soul-Sucking Job: 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 often see subtle signs that show up in comments or body language.
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 holds the conflicting value.
Symptom 3 - Burned Out
StrengthsFinder Talent Theme for This Example - Responsibility: This person loves to keep promises and do things right. It's an integrity thing for them. They're most in flow when they use their high accountability to build trust and respect.
Talent Insulting Situation for Someone Who Leads Through Responsibility: If you, as a leader, fill up this person's days with additional priorities (with no shifting of what's on his plate or no support to manage the change with stakeholders), you're putting them on the fast moving train to Burnoutville. You'll likely find this person working nights or weekends for months on end. They do it to be sure they make good on what they committed to someone else. If you're not on watch, you'll find this person feeling more burnt than a crispy piece of wood in the fireplace, yet you you won't hear them complain.
What To Do To Keep Your Team Members From Experiencing A Burnout Epidemic: These symptoms are easier to spot in yourself. They're tough to spot in others, especially people who think they'll just suck it up for a bit because this is what they need to do to be a good employee. When top performers are burned out, they try to keep going. They often use brute force to keep performing because they convince themselves it's a spike in volume that will settle back down. They’ll stay up later. They’ll skip workouts. They’ll push through.
For "other" employees, burnout is easier to spot because they appear and act disengaged in a way that is observable. That’s easy to see and address. Yet for your top performers, you need to check in 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 (four if you count procrastination as a bonus symptom). Of course, there are many actions you can take to help people get out of their weakness zone.
Action Steps To Offer Team Members To Get Out Of Weakness Zone
- Swap tasks among team members.
- 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).
- 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 changed his viewpoint and approach by tapping into his Relator talent, which made him care about expense reports because he cared about the impact he had on her results.
Questions To Ask Your Team Members
- What makes you feel frustrated regularly, even if it's a small thing?
- What's usually happening in the weeks and months when you feel burned out?
- What responsibilities or interactions feel soul-sucking?
If you supervise people, this is important to watch for and talk about. 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 dread and stress.
Since your team members will have stronger performance by working in their strengths, consider what can you do to align their work and their thinking with their natural talents?
Here's A Full Transcript Of The Show
You're listening to Lead Through Strengths, where you'll learn to apply your greatest strengths at work. I'm your host, Lisa Cummings and you know, I'm always telling you about how energizing it is to use your strengths at work to strengthen your performance. Well, today we flip it around and talk about how soul- sucking it can be if you're in your weakness zone frequently at work.
So this episode was inspired by a moment when I made a comment in a team StrengthsFinder session the other day. And the comment was about when you find yourself procrastinating, you are procrastinating over the same task over and over again. And that when that happens, it might be a sign that you're working in your weakness zone. And when I said it, a few faces in the crowd made that ‘Oohh’ - that's a lightbulb moment, kind of look.
A few had this look like, ‘Whoa! I never even considered that's why I'm procrastinating or why those are the types of tasks that I would put off. Pretty quickly, they're asking you for all the signs and symptoms I could think of.
So here are three important symptoms that are clues that you're working in your weakness zone too frequently.
No. 1, is that you're frustrated.
No. 2, is that you feel soul-sucked.
And No. 3, is that you're burned-out.
Now, as a regular listener, you hear me say all the time that using your strengths at work will strengthen your performance at work. Yet, even for those who buy into that concept fully, I rarely hear people considering the opposite of that, which is that working in your weaknesses all day every day at work would weaken your performance at work.
Now, if you're listening to this episode, and you're applying this to yourself, personally, it's relatively easy. You know, when you're personally in a state of frustration, or burnout. You know, when work is feeling like soul sucking drudgery to you, even when you try to not show it on the outside. But sometimes these symptoms can sneak up on you over time, you don't know when they're coming, but then they hit you really hard at once. And you know, really obviously, that they're there. So, when that happens to you personally, you just have to figure out what's causing it and do something about it. Now, if you're a people manager, or a talent management professional, or a strength champion, or coach, this gets a little tougher, because you're trying to spot it on someone else. And often the same symptoms show up on people who are disengaged out of boredom, or maybe because they lack some care.
Those can be the exact same symptoms that show up when someone is giving every ounce of their energy to the job only it's in a weak area. So, it's sucking 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 it's unhealthy. Well, they actually show the same symptom when they're over watered. So, you might have a plant that is drowning, and you think, oh, the plant is yellow, it must need water. So, you water it and it drowns more, it gets worse, and it dies.
[3:29] Now luckily, the people are similar, except they don't die if you overwater them or you drown them in your weaknesses. But it does get tough, they might be soul sucked from working in their weakness zone. But rather than turning yellow, they turn disengaged, and they appear on the surface to be bored or detached. They have less fire less zeal in their attitude than they did when you first met them on the job.
So, you try to find them more work that will offer them a challenge. And oops, you find out your overwatering their weakness zone. So, it gets worse, the boredom and the disengagement and the detachment. Now back to plants. My mother in law helped me fix this with my plants. She gave me this thing it's a moisture meter. And if a leaf is yellow, now I can stick a probe in the ground and see if it's too wet or too dry before I decide whether it's yellow because it's over watered, or underwatered. So yeah, you know, this helped me stop killing plants.
But what about humans? They're not that easy. There's not a strength zone probe that has been invented yet. So, you have to have conversations about this stuff. So let's break down an example of three of those symptoms the frustration, and the soul- sucking, the burnout. And it will help you explore the kind of conversations you might have as a team to uncover these draining weaknesses zone kind of responsibility.
[5:00] So let's take the first example. Let's use frustration.
[5:03] And let's use the StrengthsFinder talent theme of Activator. So, if you have the Activator talent theme, you're going to love getting projects off the ground, you will be most inflow at the start of something new. Something is going to be killing your Activator, really frustrating you, if you fill up the day with red tape, lots of approval steps, vetoes, especially surprise vetoes, delay after delay, or hearing from people, ‘Oh, we should do this before we jump into action.’
And so, you have that kind of life as an Activator, this person is going to be more frustrated than taking a foodie and asking them to eat processed cheese for the month. So, what do you do about that? Well, if you have a team member who is mature, and who is highly accountable, they're not going to complain and kvetch about this. So, you really have to be on the lookout for the tiniest comments about a project that's eating them up. They might make a little light moment about banging their head against the wall, or something like that. But start to really tune into those because people don't want to be whiners often, if they're your high performers. And they're the ones that really at risk if you don't keep them working in their strengths.
So, let's say you're in a situation where you can't assign them fast-moving projects without red tape, because you're in a culture that has a lot of bureaucracy. So just get really creative, open the conversation, start to think about things like assigning them just to the front end of certain projects, and then being able to hand off to a partner who thinks it's fun to get to the finish line and use persistence to solve those problems along the way.
[6:48] Or you can keep an eye out for projects that are about the concept of creating something new versus projects that are about maintaining something existing.
So, there's just an idea about what you could do if you were working with the frustration of the Activator talent being stuck, moment after moment, being slowed down and getting your action stopped.
Let's look at symptom No. 2. So that's feeling soul-sucked. All right, so let's use the Analytical talent for this example of being soul-sucked. If you lead through Analytical, you're gonna love working with facts, you will love working with data, you'll be most in flow when you can use logic to solve problems and bring new insights to the team.
And so you're going to be killing the Analytical talent, I mean, sucking the soul out of it if you fill this person's day with emotional, ambiguous, unprovable kind of issues. They're going to be super drained. You know, like, imagine you're a mathematician who's trying to logically explain to a three-year old for the 97th time that her tantrum is not going to get her favorable results.
[8:02] This is what the person would feel like at work. So now imagine in the ‘what to do it’ category. This is a situation where if you're feeling soul sucked, it's probably running counter to your values. Imagine how important personal values are to people. They are really going to sit as the foundation underneath your natural talents underneath your strengths.
So, you can often catch this one, if you watch people's faces. You can also catch this one, if you see people doing regular job duties, and they're procrastinating a lot, it might be insulting their values. They will likely resist it, maybe verbally, maybe just by taking a little bit longer or trying to work around, they'll roll their eyes. Now if they're a mature and accountable person, they're not literally going to roll their eyes, but you can kind of gather that eye-rolling type of attitude about how they view that interaction or that department or that situation.
So, really be on watch for that. You can open up conversations about it, that will help them reframe it by approaching the situation through another one of their Top 5 talents. Or you can help them address the conflict productively because if it's a values rub, it might actually create a conflict with another team, department or person. So, you can help them have a more productive conversation about it so they don't feel like they're judging in this case. It would be like the person who loves data is judging the person who gives emotion some weight, and they can feel like the other person is from another planet.
So, you can help mitigate by kind of mediating that conflict.
All right, symptom No. 3 - let's check out burnout. Okay, I think using the example of the Responsibility talent would be great. This is one I've heard of a lot in my StrengthsFinder training rooms. If you have the Responsibility talent, you are going to find it really important that you keep your promises and that you do things, right. There's really an underlying integrity to this one. So, they're going to be really in flow when they can use their high accountability so that they can build trust and respect on the team.
Now imagine how burned out, someone who leads through Responsibility will feel if you've filled that person's week with more and more and more priorities, more priorities without shifting what's on her plate right now, or no support to manage the change with stakeholders. What you're going to find is a person who works more. They work nights, they work weekends, often for months. Sometimes I've heard stories of people doing it for years to be sure they do what they committed to someone else. And often people with the Responsibility talent, because they work for you, if you're a leader, and you have direct reports, and you're assigning work, they view the fact that they're an employee of yours as their commitment to do what you've asked them to do.
[11:00] The result though, is you'll often find this person, they just feel burned out like burnt, like a crispy piece of wood in the fireplace. But you don't hear them complain because they feel a Responsibility. Like this is my duty to do it.
Now, this one is easier to spot in yourself, burnout. Yet it's tough to spot in high performers because when top performers are burned out, they keep going. They use brute force to keep performing, they stay up later, they'll skip workouts they'll push through.
Now for some employees, burnout is easier to spot because they will act disengaged. They'll appear disengaged to you. That's easier to see and address. But it's your top performers that you really need to check in with more deliberately opening this conversation in a safe way because they won't say anything for months. And unfortunately, I've heard way too many stories where burnout leads these top performers to start a job search in the background of their lives, because they don't want to ask for help or appear like a weak performer to you by bringing it up.
Okay, so you now have 3 symptoms to look out for on yourself or on your team. And four if you count procrastination as a bonus symptom. And there are a lot of actions you can take to get you or your team members out of the weakness zone.
So here are a few to help you brainstorm the action steps that you'll take from here:
1) Swap tasks around on the team.
2) Partner up with somebody who loves doing that thing that you love.
3) Use one of your top five StrengthsFinder talent themes, a different one, that allows you to get the same outcome but in a new way.
4) Name the situation. Literally give it a name, because simply knowing what it is that is driving you crazy will often just defuse it and take away a lot of stress because you've identified what it is.
5) Make a stop doing list. So, this one requires you to ask stakeholders or managers, peers, customers, whoever you're delivering work to, ask them questions about how they use the results of the work that you're doing, the work that's sucking the life out of you. And often, participants from my training events will tell me that the task isn't even required any longer. Like they're doing a report and they're giving it to the stakeholder who doesn't even look at it anymore. It's just something they've been doing for the last year. So try to get a stop doing list going.
6) And the last one is, reframe the situation. So, for example, I did a recent virtual training, and an attendee told me that he was late on his expense reports 100% of the time, and he was almost wearing it like a badge of honor and thought it was great. And he was getting scolded for it every month and he did not care. He didn't care until his colleague in the accounting department told him that he was killing her because she was staying late and she was missing her deadlines for closing out the books every month.
And so, he reframed it. He started tapping into his Relator talent, which made him care about the outcome because he cared about her.
So now it's your turn. What's going on with you at work? What makes you personally feel frustrated regularly? What happens in the weeks and the months when you catch yourself feeling burned out? What responsibilities feel like soul sucking drudgery for you?
Then the next layer is, apply this question to people around you. If you supervise people, this is important to watch for. Open up the conversation, talk to your direct reports and one on one about what responsibilities and projects make them feel alive and excited.
And contrast that with the ones that make them feel consistent dread and stress and don't wait for the moment when you think that they're feeling terrible that they're already frustrated burned out soul-sucked before you open this conversation because if you do, they might already be done with you. They might already be looking for another job. So, make this an okay conversation to have now.
So, with that, I'll leave you for this episode with one thought. If 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?
Until next time, I look forward to hearing how you and your team will claim your talents and share them with the world.