There are a lot of reasons that people get burned out at work. Mostly it boils down to a lack of agency. When people feel like they have no real control or ownership over their own jobs, it becomes debilitating.
There is an issue closely related to this lack of agency problem, but different enough that it’s useful to call it out explicitly. It’s the problem of feeling powerless to affect change, despite having the vision and know-how to make a real difference. People who are passionate about what they do are especially susceptible to it.
You’ve gained experience and paid your dues. You have innovative ideas that could have a groundbreaking impact. But there are no channels for you to get these ideas to leadership and decision-makers. On the contrary, the system is set up to ensure that you do not have access to those people in power.
This can happen easily in large, sprawling organizations, but it also happens in smaller organization with imperious power differentials. Here leaders construct an echo chamber around themselves, and that insular group of people is aggressively protective of their inner circle. They may not be conscious of it, but any hint that someone outside the circle might have transformative ideas, devalues the circle.
The only way big ideas get through to the circle is through a consultant—usually a very expensive consultant who may gather their ideas from those passionate high performers throughout the organization. Those ideas are then repackaged and presented to leadership as their own recommendations.
If a product or service gap is perceived through the consultation process, it is not uncommon for the circle to create a whole new executive-level position and hire someone from outside to spearhead addressing that gap. Why don’t they call on their own experts? Taking this route, after all, is incredibly costly.
They don’t look for solutions internally because they cannot see from the inner circle those people who are eager to innovate and have more insight to the matters at hand than anyone else possibly could.
The real solution is in the hands of leaders.
The walls those in the inner circle have put up prevent them from seeing the talent they have internally. From their perspective, the people doing the work in the organization are a kind of vague blur. Moreover, by hiring from the outside, they can maintain the illusion of the all-knowing inner circle.
The effect this callous behavior has on other people is devastating. It crushes people’s spirit and demoralizes them.
One might say that the solution is for those passionate people to leave that toxic organization. Become that important executive another organization is hiring. But it’s not that easy. What if the organization whose leadership is blind to your value really means something to you? Maybe you’re not crazy about the leaders, but what the organization does, what it produces, what it gives to the world is meaningful to you. You don’t want to leave because you believe in its mission. Or you have invested your career there. Or your pension and insurance for your family is tied to that place.
The real solution is in the hands of leaders. This isn’t easy either. It requires self-awareness and vulnerability on the part of leaders. Nonetheless, as a leader, it is what you must do. Be proactive about breaking down walls. Make yourself accessible. Open channels of communication. Reach out to people who are passionate about what they do. Yes, it can be intimidating. Yes, it will make you feel vulnerable. But that’s what real leaders do. True leaders do not close themselves off from the people they are leading. They open themselves up.