How to Avoid Generosity Burnout
Protecting "Extra Milers" From Overdoing It
Keisha knows she shouldn't be thinking about work. It's Sunday afternoon, after all.
She should be spending the last hours of the weekend soaking up the sunshine, playing with her two sons in the garden, and helping her husband to set up the barbecue. Instead, she's spent most of the day putting together a sales report that her boss needs first thing Monday.
She should have got it done well before the end of last week, but, because she stayed late to help with a team evaluation, sat in on a client presentation rehearsal, attended marketing meetings, and dealt with an endless list of requests from colleagues, she hasn't had time.
Keisha is at risk of "generosity burnout" (also known as "collaborative overload") – she is so eager to help others out that she ends up doing more than she should and spending less time on the things that really matter.
In this article, we'll discuss the causes and danger of generosity burnout, and the steps that you can take to avoid it.
Understanding Generosity Burnout
One of the main challenges of generosity burnout is the assumption that "going the extra mile" is always a positive thing. It's not!
If you're an "extra miler" – someone who goes out of your way to help others and strives for excellence – you likely enjoy being the one who everyone relies on and whose extra input, dedication and contribution is valued. But problems can start to creep in when you are expected to do this.
These high expectations from colleagues, and even your manager, can soon lead to burnout and exhaustion – mental, physical and emotional.
In fact, research published in 2017, by Wharton professor of management Adam Grant and researcher Reb Rebele, warned that the value of generous extra milers can fall if they become overwhelmed by requests and aren't managed carefully.
If this happens to you, you risk experiencing "generosity burnout." This has negative consequences:
- Physical and emotional burnout. You may become burnt out by the constant demands on your time, and feel that you are being pulled in too many directions at once. This will likely impact the quality of your day-to-day work, and it can also lead to fatigue, stress and even ill health.
- Resentment and poor morale. You may start to resent your co-workers' demands and expectations, especially if you find it hard to say no to them. If you don't address this resentment, it may affect your performance, your morale, and your emotional wellbeing.
- Lack of engagement with the people who really matter. You might find that you have become so busy dealing with everyone else's demands that you no longer have time for the people who really count – for instance, your team members, your clients or your family members. They can soon become frustrated with your lack of engagement.
- Poor performance in others. Other team members may begin to take advantage of your generosity, and rely on you so much that they become complacent and unproductive. This can also increase the risk of the team's work being delayed and of poor quality if you are absent or decide to leave the organization.
So how can you continue to go that extra mile, while protecting yourself from generosity burnout? Or, if you're a manager, how can you prevent your extra milers from becoming too burdened? We'll explore some strategies for doing this below.
The Generosity Spectrum
The first step is to identify how much each of the people on your team contribute. Are any of them an extra miler? Do they trade favors and only give to others as much as they receive from them? Or perhaps they don't contribute much at all, and prefer to rely on star performers to pick up the slack.
According to Grant and Rebele, your team members will likely fall somewhere on the "Generosity Spectrum" (see Figure 1, below).
Figure 1. The Generosity Spectrum
We'll now take a look at each of the four personality types shown on the Generosity Spectrum in more detail.
- Takers. This person sees every interaction as an opportunity to advance his or her own interests. He will behave as if he is entitled to your help and will feel little, if any, guilt about imposing on your time.
- Matchers. A matcher takes but also gives back. She's less selfish than a taker, but will protect her time carefully. She sees any additional work that she picks up as a favor or a transaction, and so will expect her generosity to be reciprocated in equal measure by those she helps out.
- Self-protective givers. This person is generous but he will evaluate the cost and impact of his generosity, both on himself and the person he is helping. He will limit his generosity if he is too busy with high priority tasks or feels taken advantage of.
- Selfless givers. This is essentially the unfettered extra miler. She is a selfless giver with a high concern for others, but a low concern for herself. Her generosity knows no bounds, which makes her vulnerable to takers. However, by ignoring her own needs, she risks exhausting herself and can actually end up being less effective and helpful to her team or organization as a result.
In his 2013 book, Give and Take, Grant suggests that the people who make the most sustainable contributions to their organizations are those who go the extra mile, but who can also protect their time so that they achieve their own goals, too. In the next part of this article, we'll look at what you can do to achieve this balance.
According to research by academics at the University of Iowa, extra milers can fall into two main categories – ones who use "helping" (they promote team cooperation and take on responsibilities outside their core role) and ones who use "voice" (they speak up and challenge the status quo to put forward constructive ideas for positive change).
You can learn more about managing extra milers by reading our article, How to Get the Best From an Extra Miler.
Managing Generosity Burnout
The second step is to find ways for you, and your team members, to be generous in a productive and sustainable way. Let's look at some strategies for managing generosity burnout effectively.
1. Be a Smart Giver
Our work-life balance is one of the biggest things that we risk when we suffer from generosity burnout. So, it's important that we use our time and energy in a smart way, to ensure that we remain productive at work while safeguarding our home life.
Keisha, for instance, clearly enjoys being an extra miler. It makes her feel valued by her colleagues and gives her a sense of adding value for her organization. But it's clear that her generosity is damaging her work-life balance. This could, in time, make her resent these constant, extra demands.
To combat this, she needs to manage her time and workload smartly. This is something that her manager, Conor, can help her with. For instance, he can give her a set of rules for saying "no," or provide a "gatekeeper" to help to organize her workload, so that her time and projects are managed more effectively.
This should also help her to prioritize the things that really matter, such as her key performance indicators, her relationships with the rest of her team and Conor, and the time that she spends with her family.
If you, like Keisha, struggle to prioritize your tasks, take a look at our article on Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle. This provides some guidelines on organizing your workload by the importance and urgency of your tasks.
2. Recognize the Difference Between Volume and Value
It can be hard to switch off nowadays because we're "always on." Smartphones, instant messaging, and social media make it easier than ever for us to "check in" with work, even when we aren't there.
But this can cause us to become swamped with low level, low value requests from people that can eat into our time and cause us to lose focus on our main goals. This often happens if word gets around – especially to "takers" – that we're willing to help out and enjoy putting others' needs before our own.
If this does happen, don't lose focus! Remember to prioritize any requests that come in, along with your daily tasks, and learn how to say "no" constructively and without causing offense. It is also important to consider your own value. Think about your strengths, interests and personal goals, and "give" in ways that complement them.
3. Don't Go it Alone
One of the best ways to go the extra mile for your organization without actually having to put in the miles yourself is to develop your skills as a connector or a facilitator.
If Keisha were able to do this more, she would reduce the pressure on herself and foster collaborative working within her organization, enhance team relationships, and make good use of her delegation skills.
Of course, you need to find the right balance here. Don't be tempted to pass on lots of requests to other people, as this will likely cause them to become resentful and may even damage your reputation as an extra miler.
If you know that you are the best person for the job, take ownership of it but, if you think someone else is more able, then ask if he can help. And, if you receive a request that will involve work that you particularly enjoy or that will get you closer to your personal goals, then it's a win-win for both of you!
4. Set Aside "Extra Miler Time"
Dedicate specific time for dealing with the additional requests that you receive. Think, for instance, about how an academic professor schedules office hours to see her students or a congressman sets aside time for his district meetings, rather than dealing with queries and requests "on the hoof."
Of course, this may not always be realistic or practical if it's your boss who's doing the asking, because her requests will usually take priority. But, it's important to safeguard your "extra miler time" wherever possible.
Using online scheduling tools, such as Business Calendar or Todoist, or setting up "out of office" email notifications can also help here. Doing this will help you to stay focused on existing tasks, and not get distracted by new requests.
An extra miler can have a strong, positive influence on how a team operates. This is the person who gives up his time willingly to others, goes above and beyond his job role, and is always there to lend a helping hand.
But if his generosity goes unchecked and people become over-reliant on him, he can risk experiencing "generosity burnout."
The term was first used by academics Adam Grant and Reb Rebele. It refers to the negative consequences of constant and unchecked generosity: physical and emotional burnout, resentment, poor morale, a lack of engagement with others, and poor performance by colleagues.
However, there are a number of things that you can do to avoid generosity burnout. Use your time and energy wisely, prioritize the most valuable tasks, ask for help, and learn how to say "no."