Waking up in the night worrying about your team members; not delegating work because ‘they’ve got enough on their plate, and it’ll be quicker if I just do it myself’; planning to get an important paper written and finding you’ve spent all of your day trying to solve other peoples’ problems; feeling exhausted and overwhelmed ALL THE TIME. Do any of these sound familiar?
In their compassionate and practical book, Burnout¹, Emily & Amelia Nagoski use the phrase ‘human giver syndrome’ to describe a way of being where we expend all our energy on giving to others, meeting others’ needs, solving others’ problems and rarely, if ever, attending to our own needs. They link these behaviours to increasing rates of burnout², and to feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion.
And yet we know that autonomy (the need to direct our own life and work) and competence are crucial for our motivation, and therefore that failing to empower staff undermines their motivation, their self-efficacy (their belief in their ability), their performance and their wellbeing³. Sometimes, as leaders, ‘we help most by not helping'⁴.
So, what can we do about it, how do we stop ourselves leaping in to solve other people’s problems, all the while increasing our own stress levels and reducing other people’s self-efficacy, motivation and empowerment?
Give this a try: next time you notice yourself leaning in, ready to suggest a solution, ready to ask what you can do to help: use the STOP technique5:
S – stop whatever you are doing, pause
T - take one long, deep breath
O – observe what is happening, how you feel, what you are doing
P – consciously choose how to proceed
And instead of asking what you can do or suggesting a solution, try using this powerful coaching question which builds accountability, awareness and action:
What would help?
Kate Elliott Learning and OD Manager, Workforce Development Team, Department of Human Resources
To find out more about using a coaching approach: Development Toolkit: Coaching (e-learning)
To request a coach for yourself: The University of Bath coaching service for staff
Leadership Conversations : Managing Your Energy Not Your Time
¹Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books. burnout (burnoutbook.net)
²2022 Pulse of Talent: Competing for talent takes more than pay | Ceridian
³Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78
⁴Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership: Renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion. Harvard Business School Press.
I love your blog. I burnt out in April following multiple cross departmental staff resignations and experienced overwhelm during a restructuring of our team and I am not alone - your words resonated with me. I knew the theory but it was hard to put into practice. EAP are marvellous and I'm healing now. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I couldn't move or think for two months and the period of recovery has been transformative. Thanks for engaging. Your work is so much appreciated.
Hello Natasha - thank you so much for your comment and for sharing some of your experience. I'm really pleased to hear it resonated with you and even more pleased to hear that you have started the process of healing.