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How to Authentically Lead Your Team Away From (or Out Of) Burnout

Photo: Polina Tankilevitch for Pexels

2020 was awkward and painful, and you forced yourself to pretend like it didn’t hurt to protect you and your team. Now, you can’t stop obsessing over how to set up for a successful 2021 and make it the “best year ever.” But 2020 did hurt and your exhaustion, your team’s morale, and (possibly) your results prove it. Unfortunately, there’s no amount of marketing or fancy professional colloquialisms to cover up the reality of the mark that was left. So, like every other challenge you’ve crushed, you decide you’ll stay resilient, put a plan together, and execute. Right?

Wrong. You will not succeed in 2021 by applying the same resiliency that worked in previous years. Those years got you ready for 2020’s challenges, and the worst possible thing you can do now is pretend 2020 was like any other year. I remember how you feel. I burned out when I was responsible for a strategic corporate team and a $30 million savings goal despite my team’s headcount vacancies and not one, but two, bosses who couldn’t communicate. I tried to keep it all running smoothly, and even more, I felt responsible to protect my team from the chaos. I went in feeling like it would be a fun challenge, but it left me hollow. This happened because I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was terrified to fail and, despite all of my leadership experience, I didn’t have the tools to cope or the time to learn new ones. So, instead, I grasped for the one tool of any other good, corporate soldier: the grit to double down and work harder to make it happen. That heroic attempt stole my smile and set me on a path that only three months of medical leave would begin to heal. 

Luckily, before I ruined everything, my body burned out, so my mind didn’t have to. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, my burnout was a transformative moment for my leadership style and my life. After the panic attacks and night terrors subsided, I built a plan to recover by re-grounding myself in the basics of what I thoroughly believe in. My burnout catapulted me into building a purpose-driven business also based on those same principles. Here are some ways you can build a team that can help you create what might just be your best year yet. 

Embrace Feelings at Work (Even Your Own)
I know, the same way we’re not supposed to post too much on social media, we’re also expected to leave our personal lives in the waiting room of a Zoom call. But really, how is that possible when our personal and professional lives have so closely converged? Or, what about your team member who lost a family member to COVID-19 and needs more than three days of bereavement leave to grieve? Tools to encourage mindfulness at work help break the stress cycle with you and your team, which drives higher team engagement. 

Consistently starting team meetings with questions like “What’s the one superpower you’d like to wake up with?” or “What do you feel you are best at?” helps center your team. One of the most powerful things you can do is let your team know that it’s safe to be honest about who they are, and this mindfulness technique is one of many that can help create that safe environment. 

Be Available (Without Enabling)
We’ve all had the boss who was never around and also the one who did a great job overloading you with work while they happily indulged in life outside of work. Both are miserable situations. The best leaders, however, are ones who are available but are also clear on their boundaries so they can maintain the energy levels required to effectively lead. By doing this, they show their support so their own team members can feel comfortable setting boundaries for themselves. Great leaders also respect those boundaries. Another way to accomplish this is to establish safe places for them (and for you) to grieve so you show your support of them as people without being their primary support system. Establishing a safe environment where team members can take a break without judgment demonstrates you mean it, and it also protects you from getting involved in every grievance. 

Be a Human
Presenting yourself as the perfect boss is never sustainable, but that’s especially true when you and your team are struggling with burnout. That’s why now more than ever you have an opportunity to lead authentically and humanize yourself. By doing this, you take the stress off you and your team—you get a break from always being the boss, and your team gets to relax from having to perform for you, because they’re fearful of not living up to your expectations. Stress quickly becomes an exchange of energy between others, and it can slowly erode your team’s morale, so set the tone for the type of energy you want exchanged. Let your team know it’s okay to set boundaries on their availability, video/non-video, attendance to a Zoom call with no makeup or a baseball cap on. Let them know that more than anything, you’re grateful for their presence at the meeting, and no judgment will exist if you show up with your non-business look. 

Do More Together 
If you’re a leader who’s burned out, don’t go into this year feeling a spark of heroism to do it all yourself. Your team is there to help you achieve goals, and they want you to trust them. I built my business based on a model I refer to as trustful accountability. This looks like setting up a system that works for you and your team on how to stay aligned to the goals that will be achieved. Consider having your team set an agenda ahead of your meeting time, get clear on your goals, and involve your team by welcoming creative and practical ideas on how to achieve those goals. 

Build a Support System
Whether or not you’re burned out, any great leader knows they need a support squad outside of work. And it’s not sufficient to only have a professional mentor. While a mentor helps with your work, it’s easy to forget that your skills and talents outside of the office are worthy of having a supportive network to help them grow. This non-work outlet is even more important when your day job is your main source of stress. Having a space to process your emotions is crucial to bringing your fullest self to work. Sadly it’s something we rarely prioritize as adults. 

Consider hiring a coach or enrolling in a course to get back in touch with things you enjoy, even if they don’t directly benefit your performance at work. Plus, having a support system for yourself (and not being shy about it) also demonstrates to your team that even their leader can benefit from outside support. This allows them to feel safe to create and share having a support system of their own. 

There is no greater tragedy than a creative team that can’t create because they don’t have the energy for it. This applies to you, too, leader figure. This year, take time to plan your strategy to burnout-proof your team with the same care and attention you devote to your team’s 2021 business objectives. 

About The Author
Jessica Walther

Jessica is the co-founder and CEO of Itivate and the creator of The Burnout Institute. After leading and (re)structuring multiple teams of her own by embracing their strengths, Jessica’s mission is to help leaders and organizations maximize results by unleashing their purpose, their process, and their people. She created Itivate and The Burnout Institute to help individuals and corporate clients suffering from burnout to reinvent a corporate structure in our society that allows employees to fully utilize their creative potential and to live balanced lives. Through her personal and professional experiences, Jessica provides a unique approach to helping organizations avoid the costly impacts caused by “metrics-only” thinking and instead identify, embrace, and increase results by creating a productive workforce driven by accountability, data, and authenticity. Follow her on Instagram @jessica.p.walther.