How Can You Manage a Burnt-Out Employee?

burnt-out employee

I think my marketing assistant might be burnt-out. She gets her work done but just barely — it’s like she’s doing the bare minimum required, rather than bringing any excitement or sense of possibility to the work. She also doesn’t seem fully present in meetings and never really comes to me with questions or ideas like her colleagues do. She’s been a bit like this since she started 18 months ago, but in the last few months it’s gotten worse. How can I motivate her to get excited about her job and the work we do? 
Employee motivation is a tricky thing. On one hand, if you have the right people in the right roles, you shouldn’t have to motivate them; the right people should feel motivated by the work, and in many ways, that’s a test of whether you hired the right person.
On the other hand, that doesn't let you off the hook for creating the conditions to motivate the right people, which means giving clear expectations and useful feedback, showing them how their work contributes to a larger whole and ensuring they have the resources to do their jobs well. You also need to make sure you’re not doing things that will de-motivate good people, such as yelling, setting ever-moving goalposts, neglecting to deal with problems or otherwise being a difficult manager.
But if you’re confident that you’re holding up your side of things, then it’s time to talk with your employee about what might be happening on her end. In that conversation, you want to do three things:
1. Dig in to what might be going on. Ask for your employee’s perspective because you might find out that she’s feeling overworked or struggling with a particular aspect of the job or even realizing the job isn’t for her. In that case, what you’ve been seeing are just symptoms of a larger problem that needs to be tackled. But if that doesn’t happen…
2. Be transparent. Be explicit about the behaviors that you’d like to see that you’re not seeing. For instance, you might explain that you’d like her to generate more ideas on her own rather than simply executing someone else’s directions, or to be more aggressive about spotting opportunities to get your company’s message out.  
3. Show her the bigger picture. Make sure your employee understands how crucial her work is and how it fits in with the larger picture. Talk about how what she’ll accomplish in the next year ties to what the organization is trying to achieve and why that matters.
From there, give her some time to act on your feedback. If you see changes, recognize and reinforce them. (For instance, “I was impressed with how you steered that planning meeting today and brought us to a better solution.”)
But if you don’t see the changes you’re hoping for after this conversation, it might be time to look at whether you have the right person in the role — because ultimately, the right person for the job is someone who will be excited about the work on her own.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing. 

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