Fight burnout: Help your people stay vitalized in their jobs

By Edward Miller

In 1463, the authorities of the cathedral in Florence acquired a 16-foot-high block of white marble. Two long-since-forgotten sculptors worked on the piece for a while before abandoning the badly mangled block, which was put into storage. Over the years, other artists were offered the block, but each time it t was rejected. The artists said they couldn't possibly produce a work of art out of the "damaged" marble.

Forty years later, Michelangelo took the block from storage and within 18 months carved it into what became one of the world's most famous statues - the youthful David. How much flogging of this metaphor - borrowed from "Cracking Creativity: The secrets of creative genius" by Michael Michalko - will it take to get you to think about the "mangled blocks" in your organization and the works of art you might still get from them?

Who are some of these "mangled" people?

The burned out: This person was probably a star of yesteryear, the steady go-to guy in tough situations. But recently, his production has been down. So has his disposition. His performance isn't exactly substandard, but it is declining.

The eager but untrained: This person, probably in her first management job, is young, bright, eager, and scared to death of being exposed as a "fraud." She was probably promoted to manager with little or no training. For her, "just-in-time training" never arrived. The result is a perpetual balancing act between potential competence and shaky confidence.

The marginalized: Too young to be burned out, too old to be waiting his turn, this person has been bypassed, often the victim of labeling inflicted years before. People typecast as "mediocre" or "once had great potential" find it hard to shake the branding, so they are sent to the shadows and ignored.

The anonymous and stressed: For these people, their routine tasks make it difficult to stand out. They often feel anonymous, thankless and stressed.

The English word "resuscitate" comes from the Latin verb meaning "to revive."

Here are three thoughts about resuscitation: Reconsider your assessments. The "burnout" may be bored. The "eager but untrained" probably lacks confidence, but the potential is still there.
The "marginalized" hasn't met anyone's expectations recently , but then again no one expects much. The "anonymous and stressed" is just that, so you really don't know how good she might be. In all cases, evaluations shouldn't be an annual ritual. They should be frequent, and should be focused as much on potential as performance.

Put the money back in training. Hard times invariably bring budget cuts, and the first cuts usually come in training.

That response will only guarantee more "mangled blocks" in the future. Training and coaching don't have to be expensive. I do a lot of work with small organizations that take training seriously , but have limited resources. A commitment to individual development is the primary prerequisite, not a big budget.

Think about better "matching." A lot of people are in the wrong jobs, or in the right jobs at the wrong time in their career. A promotion, especially to a management job, may be a curse without careful matching and thorough preparation. A manager's assessment of the staff has to cover not only the potential and performance of individuals, but proper "matching" as well.

Every organization should create and sustain a culture that prizes individual talents, however hidden, and enables people to get a fresh start each day . No business can afford to be a warehouse for "mangled blocks."

© Ed Miller 2009

Edward D. Miller is a former editor and publisher of The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, and an affiliate of The Poynter Institute. A cofounder of the Society of Newspaper Design and a former Pulitzer Prize juror, he coaches newspapers around the world.

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