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June 01, 2009

Burnout at the Not-OK Corral

I've just read an intriguing article about burnout among web designers by Scott Boms, in the most excellent web 'zine A List Apart.

From Scott Boms' article:
Phases of burnout are:
  • A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder
  • Neglecting one’s own needs
  • Displacement of conflict away from true cause of distress
  • Revision of values (dismissing friends, family, hobbies)
  • Denial of emerging cynicism, aggression, frustration
  • Withdrawal from social contexts, alcohol or drug abuse
  • Behavioral changes become obvious to others
  • Inner emptiness
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts, mental / physical collapse
 Causes of burnout:
  • Every day is a bad day
  • You're not emotionally invested in your job
  • You feel unappreciated
  • You feel like you’re not making a difference
  • Clear disconnect between your personal values and what is expected of you
  • Unrealistic or unreasonable goals are imposed on you
  • A significant amount of your day is focused on unfulfilling tasks

Burnout results from a lack of balance. Something's wrong, you don't or can't deal with it directly, you start with work-arounds, and you end up off balance. I was kind of amused recently to see somebody with a box of Balance bars. I didn't know they sold balance in boxes. I need a few boxes of that, and also a few boxes of Judgement if they sell that, too.

One thing that I've learned in the last ten years is that although we all tend to think our industry/ specialty/ niche is unique, there's really very few unique fields, and the human condition is universal. What Boms says about web designers applies to doctors, rocket scientists, and even Azimuth Technologies Corp.

Azimuth Technologies Corporation

Azimuth Technologies' employees are bright creative people, artists in a unforgiving industry, technowizards. They do things that other people can't, return outcomes that others can describe but not deliver, and their errors are judged by lesser creatures.

The Great Change

Three years ago, headquarters at Azimuth Technologies Corporation radically changed the way they treated employees. They wanted to break the employee-driven culture. Azimuth Technologies wanted a clear change of the status quo, a reversal of the previous decade, and a redefinition of the world of work.

On the Interface

I knew a group of ten team leads (supervisors) at Azimuth's local shop at the time of the Great Change.
  • 4 of them retired to get away from it
  • 4 of them took promotions away from the front lines
  • 1 transferred to another location
  • only 1 is still working as a team lead
  • 2 of these 10 have had major nervous breakdowns.

Under New Ownership

The Great Change has had its way for three long years. Recently, Ownership changed hands. The new Owner has called for a return to the way things were, they've insisted on a revision to the rewrite, and there's a chance that Great Wrongs will be set right. Paychecks will be corrected, procedures and processes will be restored, efforts will be made. Thank God for the new owners.

Even St. Jane can't restore trust. You can't restore the destroyed assumption that Azimuth will support their people, which is a key requirement for front line troops. The people have learned that a change in Ownership can throw all their assumptions and agreements out the window. They also know that this new Ownership, admirable as their position is, will someday be a former Owner, too.

The Pendulum Swings

Among the Quislings who championed the change, this swing of the pendulum toward equilibrium will be deeply resisted. They will throw their sabots in the machinery, they will attempt to bog it down, there will be pockets of recidivism, but they cannot change the pendulum's swing any more than the managers who opposed the change three years ago could stop it in their time.

The Damage

The ones who suffered the most are the employees - their families were hurt, they were treated with contempt, and they were subjected to capricious change just to show that they weren't in charge. They'll never trust Azimuth Technologies Corp. or the managers again. They shouldn't.

Strategic Damage

The strategic damage is the destruction of trust and the loss of relationship. At one time, Azimuth employees knew that if they were trying to do the right thing, Azimuth Technologies would support them. That assumption is long gone. What's the ROI on a culture of distrust?
All the King's horses,
all the King's men,
couldn't put Azimuth together again.

Downstream Impact

Demographically, Azimuth Technologies Corp. is going to churn 75% of their people in the next five years. Let's call the 25% that remain the bridge cohort. They'll be the legitimately bitter veterans who'll convey the story and the distrust to the new 75%, Azimuth's "Generation Next". A lot of the Gen-Next's won't listen, or will forget. I hope enough will remember: "The struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting".

The upcoming correction will have winners and losers, just like any change. Winners will be the employees, Justice, and Right (vs Wrong). The Losers will be the people who embraced and championed the Great Change. Other Losers will be the people who stepped in to fill Team Lead vacancies, and whose only experience has been during the Great Change.

The Wreckage

The working people bear the impact, the cost , and the stress of the change. I think the supervisors, with one foot on each side of the labor/management divide, bear both damage and responsibility.

Let me be clear that the greatest injury, the most egregious wrong, has been done to the employees and their families. But I also count among the wreckage the two team leads (out of ten) who had nervous breakdowns. Surely this is the manifestation of Azimuth's implementing a morally wrong policy. Another writer describes the ATC experience as a real-world Milgram Experiment, and it's a legitimate point; most of the Nazis were "just following orders", too. (edited for clarity)

Nature of the Beast or Job Related Injury?

Europeans view burnout as a job-related injury. The way we Yanks continue to view burnout as an individual problem and an individual inadequacy, rather than an occupational issue caused by factors beyond the individual's control, is a barrier to dealing with the organization issues.

Christina Maslach, author of the benchmark Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), has always contended that burnout says more about the employer than it does about the employee. “Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles,she famously wrote in 1982, “without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they’d been submerged!

Burnout as the New Norm

When I consider the new team leaders who have replaced the ten I knew, and I look at the 25% "bridge cohort" that will convey today's culture to the Gen-Next's, I think they're all dead set on the burnout track that Boms described in his article.

The long-term cultural implications of a demanding technocreative organization, with team leads and a cadre of experienced employees that personify the burnout profile, will provide a very challenging environment and a very interesting study.


kilwer said...

As one of the bridge cohorts at Azimuth Technologies, I have had the same concerns that you so eloquently expressed. I hope that your pendulum swing theory is correct. My prediction is that Azimuth's team leads, whose resumes would not land them a night manager's job at Wendy's, will fall back on the only management training they know. Azimuth has indoctrinated a group of individuals with no previous management education into its own style of management. You will not find these management techniques being taught at any reputable institution of higher learning.

Generation Next has shown signs of disappointment. It's really not their fault either. Azimuth has lowered the standards of the screening process. It is not just the bright creative people walking in the front door these days. We are finding out after nearly a year and a half on the payroll that many don't have "the flick." This is most evident at Azimuth's New York office which has not produced one fully certified employee. You will remember that the New York office was first to experience The Great Change when 12 workers were fired.

While I agree that the next few years would provide an interesting study, I'm not sure I'll enjoy being a guinea pig. Take good notes.

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