Preventing Burnout

If quality professionals want people to listen, they must take responsibility, develop a personal mission and understand the big picture

by Hank Lindborg

Quality becomes a hot topic when great corporations collide over who bears greater responsibility for killing their customers or when studies expose dangerous hospitals or ineffective schools.

Dramatic, public failures make good copy. In such a climate, quality assurance may be treated with irony, and quality vision statements greeted with the response of Dilbert's pointy haired boss: "Did anybody bring donuts?"

I recently received a slide show chronicling the collapse of a huge platform at sea. As the rig collapses and disappears under the waves, the hyperinflated language of its builder's quality vision is scrolled across the screen. Irony, disconnect, cynicism? Burnout?

Christina Maslach of the University of California at Berkeley finds contributors to burnout--a state of fatigue, numbness and isolation--include overwork, lack of control, loss of community and a poor match between personal and organizational values.

What can you do?

If you're feeling burnt out, especially when lofty corporate language doesn't match quality performance, what can you do? Apart from seeking a new job, shifting careers or taking up consulting to try to find someone who will listen, how can you become a more effective contributor and influence change?

First, take responsibility. We don't have to be helpless witnesses with ineffectual visions.

Leadership coach Bob Anderson of Soul Works contrasts two life stances. One, empowered and creating, takes responsibility for what's going on, focuses on results and acts out of vision. The other, defensive and reacting, focuses on what's not wanted and acts to make pain go away.

Choose the first life stance. People in work groups reinforce one another's values. Start looking for ways to make small positive changes in your own area. They can have powerful effects.

Second, clearly define seven or eight of your most important professional values. What motivated you to enter this profession? What, if anything, has changed? What parts of your job description can you translate into belief statements?

The importance of your job description

Don't underestimate your job description. It defines what the company expects of you and may better reflect your personal values than you think. (A research study I advised found a significant correlation between personal values and job descriptions.)

Define each value. Don't assume words have the same meanings to everyone. What do integrity, service and competence mean in action? If possible, get trusted colleagues to perform similar values audits. Share and learn from differences. Seriously undertaken, this activity builds community.

Once you've defined professional values, relate them to a credo, a single line personal mission statement that defines what you stand for. Follow Laurie Beth Jones' advice in The Path.1 Make your credo easily understood and able to be recited from memory at the point of a gun.

Third, get the big picture. Get involved in systems auditing and in state and national quality award programs. These provide not only models of excellence, but also opportunities to see firsthand how values both align and compete--how they are interpreted differently at different levels even in healthy organizations.

Appreciate the wide range of human values that are positive but often in competition. We use balanced scorecards because they allow equally important objectives and the values that lie behind them to compete. We are able to advocate seemingly contradictory values so long as we take them up separately.

By being explicit about the competing values involved in any decision, we can make connections, surfacing assumptions and establishing clear priorities. At the same time, we need a systems perspective to ask how these priorities relate to our future, how they move us toward excellence.

Brian Hall of Values Technology distinguishes three types of values: Foundation values are those that enable us to survive, to enjoy physical well-being. Focus values are those we're aware of as present goals that we're developing skills to meet. Vision values are those to which we aspire, orienting us to growth.

Need all three types of values

All three value types are needed for individual and corporate health. Vision statements appropriately focus on the future, but without supporting attention to how people survive, relate and become competent, they prompt questions about donuts.

Honestly weighing personal development against productivity, responsiveness against control or creativity against financial results isn't easy. However, it's preferable to remaining silent about values implications, creating a gulf between our words and our actions, and between our organizations and ourselves.


1. Laurie Beth Jones, The Path: Creating Your Mission Satement for Work and Life (Northborough, MA: Hyperion, 1998).

HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in two graduate degree programs. Lindborg, a member of ASQ, is past chair of ASQ's Education Division and currently serves on the Education and Training Board.

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