How to Lead a Team Away from Burnout (Not Towards It)

How to Lead a Team Away from Burnout (Not Towards It)

In May 2021 I published a blog post where I asked the industry to start addressing the effects of burnout in our teams. In case you haven’t read it: Dear Digital PR Industry, We Need to Talk About Burnout

I received many messages from managers since that post went live last year. In most cases, they were asking for more specific advice as to what they could do to turn things around in their place of work. It made me wonder, how many people are experiencing the same issues but are not reaching out? And what about those team members who don’t know how to talk to their managers about how they feel? 

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that perhaps a presentation could be the best way to deliver my advice to as many people as possible in one go. Follow that presentation with a blog post like this one, and I could increase the reach even further. 

Now, public speaking is not my thing. I struggle with body dysmorphia and social anxiety, so the thought of standing on a stage in front of other people terrifies me beyond belief. Applying to speak at BrightonSEO wasn’t easy (thank you, Iona, for encouraging me) but I felt it would be a good platform for me to share my experience. 

I’m writing this in the car on the way back from Brighton and I can wholeheartedly say that BrightonSEO was the best possible platform for me to discuss burnout and the role we play as managers. The organisers were incredibly supportive (Andrea, you rock!) and the speakers in the team management track helped frame my advice beautifully with their talks (which you can check out here and here).

On top of this, I was lucky to have many team members in the audience, making sure the first two rows were full of friendly faces – huge thank you to Jess, Luke, Jack, Lee, Hanna, Louise, Teddy, Hanif, Vadym, Rodrigo and Danny. It meant a lot to see so many people from NeoMam there because everything you will read in this blog post are lessons that come from working with them every day.

And last but no least, I want to thank Elo Bielsa for the amazing illustration work she did to bring my advice to life in slide form.

5 Lessons to Help Managers Reduce Stress in the Workplace

NeoMam is a small remote team, specialised in creating content people will want to share for months and years to come. 

Sounds nice, right? Well, here’s something that doesn’t sound as nice:

Those qualities generate the conditions that make NeoMam a high-pressure, high-intensity workplace. 

  • Stressor #1: Creating content people want to share is hard, and it requires the entire team to be constantly adapting, improving and innovating.
  • Stressor #2: Being remote means everyone has to overcome the challenges of working across seven different time zones. 
  • Stressor #3: Every role is highly specialised, meaning that each of us is crucial to the process and on a bad day can quickly become a bottleneck that affects the rest of the team. 

But the reality is that these stressors will never go away as they are decisions we consciously made that shape who we are as a business and as a team.

This means that NeoMam is likely to always be a high-pressure, high-intensity work environment. 

That is why my main priority as a leader is to ensure that NeoMam doesn’t become a pressure cooker for burnout, no matter the stressors, how challenging the job is or how busy we may be.

And that is what this post is all about. I will share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned and the tools I use in my day-to-day to help me lead my team away from burnout.

Lesson #1: Align your team to what they love (and what they are great at)

In February 2015, NeoMam was one month away from going out of business. 

We had to make difficult decisions, and we had to make them fast because the money in the bank was running out.

We couldn’t sustain everybody on the team but we couldn’t let the work suffer either. 

At the time we were split into 8 teams, and we offered 5 services. We were spreading ourselves too thin, spending too much time on too many things we would never be the best at.

If we were going to survive, we needed to decide what to keep and what to let go of. 

If we were going to turn it around in the long term, we needed to be efficient at retaining, growing and attracting clients through our work.

We needed focus. We couldn’t afford to spend any time doing things we weren’t good at.

So, we doubled-down on the one thing we were great at – and it happened to be the thing we all loved the most: creating content that people will want to share.

When we aligned our business with what we loved and what we were great at, we were able to navigate an incredibly stressful and difficult moment with renewed energy.

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The change was so powerful that we started applying it to everyone’s roles

Making it possible for your team to spend most of their time focusing on what they enjoy the most and what they are great at will supercharge everyone’s output.

The tool I use in order to do that is the Delegate & Elevate questionnaire:

>> Step 1 – Build a list of everything you do (be as granular as you can) 

>> Step 2 – Sort that list into four quadrants:

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Pro tip: Never stop aligning your team with what they love and are great at 

Over time and as roles develop, it’s important to keep aligning your team (and yourself) with what they love and what they are great at. 

Once you align yourself (and your team) with what you love and what you’re great at, you will all have a greater focus. And with greater focus comes a greater awareness of things getting in the way.

Lesson #2: Create spaces where your team can identify and solve issues with you

Problem-solving is an important skill we don’t talk about often. 

The most difficult part of problem-solving is uncovering the root cause of the issue you’re dealing with. 

It is very easy to waste your time endlessly discussing symptoms of a problem and never finding the root cause. That is why you will have attended countless meetings where the same issue is discussed again and again. 

The good news is that problem-solving is a skill that can be honed. And the more you do it, the more it empowers you.

Creating spaces where people can identify and tackle issues, will make your team feel more in control of their role no matter how stressful or chaotic the situation may be. 

You will be putting them in the driving seat of their role.

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This is a great thing as it allows you to be part of the solution but it gives your team the opportunity to own the problem. 

It all comes down to two questions: What is working? and What is not working?

There’s three reasons why I like focusing on what is working first:

  1. It makes the next question feel less daunting
  2. It helps us to highlight opportunities 
  3. It allows us to quickly find contrasting points

And when it comes to ‘what’s not working’, I give my team a list of things tailored to their role for them to go through to help them focus:

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Pro tip: Don’t hold the problems your team brings over their head, and don’t make them bigger than they are with your response to them.

Problem-solving can be a moment of vulnerability as we put things on the table that on many occasions will be hard things to discuss.

Every time a problem lands on your lap, you’ve got a chance to show your team member that you are there to help and not hinder. 

If you carry problems with you to use as ammunition later, you are hindering. 

If you panic or turn the problem solving session into a gossip session, you are hindering. 

Your number one priority is to uncover the root cause of the problem so you can help your team member solve it forever. 

But what happens when a person is mentioned as the root cause as to why something is not working?

That’s when the next lesson will be key.

Lesson #3: Give your team consistent, timely, and intentional feedback on a regular basis

Most feedback I’ve received in my career has been confusing.

I have come out of many performance reviews unsure of what had just happened. “What part of what I’m doing should I keep doing?… If critical feedback is followed by ‘nothing to worry about’, then should I worry about it?”

I believe a big reason why feedback is so confusing at times is because managers are taught to use the Feedback Sh*t Sandwich technique. 

Basically:

  • The manager opens the feedback session with something positive about the team member
  • Then, they share the ‘negative’ critical feedback
  • Afterwards, they close the conversation with another piece of positive feedback
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While the intentions may be good as they don’t want to hurt their team member’s feelings, giving feedback this way is ineffective because you water down the important feedback in the middle of the sandwich. 

If you pair this with the fact that many managers will wait for a PDP meeting to share feedback, then you’ve got a recipe for lack of clarity over what exactly needs to change.

That’s why I recommend giving your team consistent, timely, and intentional feedback on a regular basis. 

Lesson-3-Consistent-timely-intentional-feedback

Did someone do something great? Tell them immediately. Did they miss the mark? Tell them immediately. 

The more clearly you show what is good or bad, the more helpful your feedback will be.

To spell your feedback out clearly, use recent situations as an example the other person will be able to remember and reference straight away. 

If your team member suffers from impostor syndrome and you highlight something they did + explain how it positively affected their results/their team, it will be harder for them to attribute their success to luck.

And if what you’re highlighting is something that they have been worried you would uncover, then you have put it on the table so they can start working on it instead of pushing against it in silence.

Pro tip: Only sit on feedback you need to investigate further

There will be times when giving feedback won’t be as straightforward, or when what the key problem areas you want to highlight are not as clear to you. Only in those times, I suggest you sit on it and take time to investigate things further.

There will be cases when issues can be traced back to one person, and the situation doesn’t improve no matter how much feedback you give them. In these cases, the next lesson will help.

Lesson #4: Find out if struggling team members get, want and have the capacity to do the job

Before someone on your team continues to struggle in their role, you need to spend some time identifying the main reason why the person seems to be hitting the same wall again and again.

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The tool I use to do this is called GWC™ and it’s something I learned by implementing the EOS System at NeoMam. 

GWC stands for get it, want it and the capacity to do it. 

“People either “get it” or they don’t when it comes to their role, the company culture, and the systems that are in place […] 

When someone genuinely likes his or her job, it shows. They take the time to understand the role and they do it based on fair compensation and the responsibility […] 

Capacity isn’t just about having the knowledge to do the job, but also the time as well as the physical and emotional capacity to do the job well.”

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Run a GWC analysis to find out whether

  • they get the job – do they understand the bigger picture of the role, the responsibilities and priorities?
  • they actually want the job – is this what they truly want, love and are great at? 
  • they have the capacity to do the job – do they have all the skills and tools needed to do a good job?

If someone is struggling with skills required for a role they get and want, then it’s on you to help them develop the skills they need to have the capacity to do the job. 

If someone wants the role and has the capacity to do it but doesn’t quite get it, then you can educate them on the fundamental responsibilities/priorities of the role and why they matter in the bigger picture of the team and the business so they can start making better decisions.

Pro tip: If someone doesn’t want the role, then you need to have a serious conversation about next steps.

There is a chance that the reason why they don’t want the role in its current form is something you can address and change. But in most cases, you will end up discussing whether it’s time to change roles, or change jobs.

That is when the next lesson comes to play… 

Lesson #5: Assume the best in your team before rushing to judgment

Difficult conversations can quickly escalate to a blaming fest. 

In most cases, this happens because there is a mix of: 

  • high stakes,
  • differing views, and 
  • strong emotions.

When we walk into a difficult conversation, we bring with us the stories we tell ourselves about the what, the why and the how of whatever it is we want to discuss.

But just because you’re in a position of power over your team, that doesn’t make your stories true. 

As a leader, you need to remember that. 

The best advice for letting go of your stories, is to assume the best in the other person so you can create a safe space where to have a productive conversation powered by your curiosity and openness.

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The only problem is that this is easier said than done.

Don’t go into difficult conversations without preparation or you will quickly lose control of your emotions. 

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Preparation is important but how you handle the conversation is key if you are to reach the outcome you set out to achieve. 

[Step 1] Open the conversation showing you’re curious to understand their side and focused on finding a solution.
“I’d like to talk about ____________ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.” 
“I’d like to talk about ___________________. I think we may have different ideas about how to _____________________.” 

[Step 2] Listen and acknowledge what you’ve heard.
Once the other person has shared their perspective, repeat what you’ve heard to make sure you’ve understood. 

[Step 3] Present your side of the story, clarifying your position without minimising theirs.
Explain what has given rise to concern, state the facts as you see them, and highlight what you can see from your perspective that the other person has missed. 

[Step 4] Move on to problem-solving together.
Ask the other person what they think might work and build on from there. Even in cases where the outcome is non-negotiable, it is still important to give the other person some space to problem-solve with you. 

If the conversation gets derailed and emotions are running high, know that remaining open and curious will be the only way to bring the conversation back to a constructive point. 

Pro tip: Ask yourself, ‘why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?’

Ask yourself this question in moments where you’re struggling to see the other person’s perspective.

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It will help you avoid tuning the other person into a villain (or turning yourself into a victim). 

This is how you can create a safe space for the other person to join you in conversation so you can find solutions together.

Lead with intention

As I said at the beginning of the post, NeoMam is a high-pressure, high-intensity workplace.

And the thing is, we are not the only ones. Our industry can be intense at times, and the world can be incredibly stressful too. 

That is why it’s important that you are present and have an open channel of communication with your team so you can be more aware of day-to-day stressors your team is facing on an individual level.

The rest is about handling the bigger picture of burnout by:

  • Ensuring your people are not stuck with tasks they hate and are not good at
  • Creating spaces where they will be safe to bring up issues so you can help them solve them
  • Giving them clear feedback (both good and bad) on the spot
  • Helping them move on if they are in the wrong role for them
  • Assuming the best in them even at the worst of times
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Your role as a leader goes beyond telling people what to do and how to do it. 

Whether you want it or not, being in a leadership position gives you the power to shape the way your people see themselves, their role and their purpose at work. 

And if everything else fails, choose to:

> Take responsibility

> Be open and honest

> Do what you said you were going to do

> Show them what you want to see from them

You need to lead with intention to bring about positive change.


This is a blog post based on my BrightonSEO 2022 presentation. You can see the slides below:

Gisele Navarro
Article by:

Gisele Navarro

Leading the team. Identifying opportunities. Removing roadblocks. Protecting our culture.