This is a transcript of episode 247 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

One of Jeffrey’s clients solves their burnout problem, and then the same problem comes up in other coaching sessions: needing the freedom to disagree. Squirrel finds a related problem of burnout from being unwilling to disappoint others. Both the need to disagree and to disappoint require difficult conversations, but you can’t really say yes without being able to say no!

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So you’ve been telling me about a pattern you’ve seen, a very interesting one that is going to lead to people burning out. I’m always interested in helping our listeners not burn out, so tell us about that.

Jeffrey: The context here is I’ve have a few different people I’m coaching and there was one person in particular that about eight weeks or so ago they were saying that they were feeling kind of low. A week or two ago they said effectively, “I’m fixed. I’m great. I wake up, I’m excited to come to work, I’m excited to read my emails. I’m really engaged.” We had a discussion about where that came from.

Squirrel: If it’s a pill, could could we get some?

It’s No Pill, But…

Listen to this section at 01:04

Jeffrey: Well, the thing was once once we spoke about it, we had a very clear pattern. Then I found that pattern again with several other people I was coaching in subsequent days and I thought, “well this is something worth talking about.” So let’s get into that. There’s a model you and I have used quite a bit in talking about communication, and it comes from a Stratechery article in the show notes called The Uncanny Valley of a Functional Organization, which is a pretty strange title, but it was something that came out at the time that Microsoft was reorganizing into a functional model. The author was saying basically it’s going to be hard. Functional organizations require different things, and in particular they would require a certain type of collaboration, and there’s this very nice 2x2 matrix that you and I have referred to many times, and we’ve used it in our training and all kinds of things like that. And that matrix talks about “mutual trust and respect,” along with “willingness and freedom to disagree.”

Squirrel: So those are the two axes and if you have lots of both, you’re in the upper right. If you have none of either, you’re in the lower left. Listeners have seen this kind of chart many times before. If you haven’t, go look at it.

Jeffrey: Classic consultant’s 2x2 matrix where the good one is always in the upper right. They label this “true collaboration.” You and I often talk about this as “productive conflict,” where you’re having conflict between ideas, but not between people. That’s where you get this really great collaboration. It requires both of these aspects: you need to be willing to speak up and talk about what’s different, and you also need to have trust and respect for the other people so that you believe that you’re going to be listened to and so that you’re actually listening to what they say. It’s really this kind of back and forth dynamic that makes it so powerful.

Squirrel: That sounds great. We’re not going to burn out if we’re there. So the burn out must be somewhere else.

Jeffrey: Exactly, that should be emphasized. A lot of times people think about burnout as being too much to do, or too much work, or things are too hard, or something like that. But that’s actually never been my experience when I’ve worked with people on time crunches, on heavy workloads, or when there’s something that we’ve got to do, if we are in that upper right quadrant. When we had a really good working dynamic, it actually made the work fun. We’re kind of embracing the challenge. There can be too much to do in time, but we weren’t burnt out. It might be hard, but we didn’t have that kind of psychological drained, disengaged, dispirited view, if we’re in that upper right.

Squirrel: If you want to think of an example where people are doing some sort of very high-strain, challenging rescue. The one I have in my mind is the kids who stuck in the caves in Thailand. You didn’t read anywhere that anybody said, “boy, this is a lot of work getting these kids out of these caves and I’m really burnt out and I just need to go lie on a beach somewhere. I’ll see you in a while.” People didn’t do that because they were highly motivated. They were really effectively collaborating. They were operating at that upper right hand corner. I think a lot of them were really exhausted! It was a completely draining activity and of course tremendously rewarding to save everyone. But the crucial thing was that they were not in a situation like we’re about to talk about, that would lead to burnout. They’re in a situation that’s highly energizing, in fact.

If Not Overburdening, What?

Listen to this section at 04:38

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s a great example. I think this is one of the things that excited me about Amy Edmondson’s book Teaming, where she talked about what it takes to bring specialists together who are not fixed teams, but you bring them together into an ad hoc team and get them up to speed and quickly and powerfully collaborating. This is where she talks about psychological safety as being so important, which really is what helps get you to that upper right. So let’s talk about the opposite now, because what was the pattern that was happening? Well, let’s look at the other axis, willingness and freedom to disagree. In particular, I’ve had several cases of people who felt that they didn’t have the freedom to disagree, that the context that they were in didn’t allow them to voice their concerns. Either they lacked a platform, didn’t have that meeting or time with the person in charge…

Squirrel: Weren’t trusted.

Jeffrey: Exactly! Yeah, there was something going on where they believed rightly or wrongly that their opinion wasn’t welcome. It wasn’t obviously being sought out, and therefore first they felt like they had no freedom to disagree, and then that started a cycle where their willingness to disagree dropped. That cycle in itself and that’s what really led to this low engagement. Therefore suddenly true collaboration is not possible. You can’t have that engaged dynamic. What we talked about is it’s sort of like if you can’t disagree, then you also can’t really commit. You can’t really say yes wholeheartedly to something if you don’t have the opportunity to say no. That was really the source that had burned out. So even the things that they liked and normally would have been excited about were undercut by the elements where they felt like they didn’t have a voice. So that was the ongoing dynamic. Now of course, we’ve had a few people here who they got themselves out of it. How did they do that? Well, we focused on the question of how do you have the difficult conversation? How do you go ahead and address this issue, which seems like it’d be impossible to discuss. Having people practice things like conversational analysis, the kind of things we talk about in our book, armed them with the ability to then realize how they could go and actually introduce the topics and have those difficult conversations, bring in the disagreement that they wanted to have. Once they did that successfully, it wasn’t a question about whether their ideas were adopt or not. That was kind of irrelevant, that didn’t correlate with the outcome. The mere fact that they were able to successfully have the conversation and raise their concerns was enough to break that cycle of disengagement. Now that they felt that they could disagree, now they could also more strongly engage in the things that they liked and supported. It really had the opposite effect, a positive cycle now of building them up, more engagement, more willingness to bring things up and talking to them. In particular, this one person who talked about things being better, they talked about being in a room with many executives and be able to just speak their mind, to say, “I think this is a problem.” And they were listened to, and they just felt so different, so amazingly different in just a few short weeks. That’s what I thought would be worth discussing.

Squirrel: Fantastic. You know, that reminds me of a pattern that I’ve seen which I think has a similar root cause, but may sound a little more like classic burnout, the kind that people refer to when they mistakenly say, “I’ve just got too much to do,” and they aren’t thinking about Thai cave divers and other examples where that doesn’t happen. There are cases I see where the specific area that they feel like they can’t disagree about is the workload. A very common complaint that people bring me is, “Squirrel, I can’t start coaching with you because I haven’t got time. I need to clear my calendar first.” So I’ll say, “we really should work on clearing your calendar. We should do something about that because it’s not going to get better.” When I do work with them on it, I ask them to have a very particular type of difficult conversation which really helps them with this, and that is to disappoint someone helpfully. So for example, if you have three or four meetings in an afternoon but you really need some strategic time to think, then what you can do is say no to all the meetings. There’s this nice button and it’s right next to the yes button in the calendar application you use. Even though I haven’t seen your account, I know it’s there and it says no. Believe it or not you can actually click that. Lots of people aren’t aware of this, but it actually works. Then of course, that leads to some conflict because somebody says, “I wanted you in the meeting, you weren’t there. I need you. Please come.” Then you disappoint them, but in a helpful way. So you explain, “Gosh, this strategic work that I need to do is actually higher priority than yours. So I’m not going to help you.” Notice how confrontational this is, right? It’s positive, but it’s definitely creating conflict. We’re not shying away. We’re not saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll come another time. How about next week?” You say, “I’m not going to help you, and that means we’ll probably do less well, we might not even land this client,” or “it might be that we don’t get this feature to scale in the way that it should. But the strategic work is more important because-,” or “the project to evaluate the company we might acquire is more important because-,” and that “because” is super important. It’s what creates the opportunity both for the other person to explain you’re wrong, it’s not more important, you’re missing something: we’re going to be out of business next week unless we do this, so it doesn’t matter whether we acquire the company. That’s one thing you could hear, and the other is that the other person gets the message that this is an important area that they should start paying attention to, and you suddenly turn this person who is going to be disappointed and your opponent trying to suck your time out and burning you out, into an ally who can help you to make progress, who can help you by making other decisions that are in line with yours and supporting, say, the strategic activity.

Jeffrey: I really like that example, and that framing of disappointing helpfully is one that I find really attractive and it’s something I know we’ve talked about on the podcast before. It certainly is an example of what we’re talking about and it’s a type of disagreement. It is different, but there’s that element, I” don’t agree to come to your meeting” or “come to have that discussion” or “spend time on what you’re asking me to.” There’s a real similar dynamic going on here where if you’re not able to express “we’re not able to do all the things you’re asking,” then of course you’re going to be feeling under pressure, disengaged, any number of things. It comes down to this ability to have the difficult conversation. That framing that you have there of disappointing helpfully, I think is exactly right.

Are You Prepared For Success?

Listen to this section at 11:48

Squirrel: Now, of course, there is an important caveat with it, which is that you have to actually listen to the other person. I had an entertaining example of this where I had someone practicing disappointing, he went and disappointed the other person and the other person was very supportive, said “great decision, really appreciate it. That’s great. You do this one before that one.” And my client said, “I don’t believe it. He must be blowing smoke. He really is unhappy with me. I’m going to get it later.” At some point you have to believe them. So part of the secret to this is to build up the trust and the good communication by practicing, by having this kind of conversation about your workload or about the projects you’re doing, the thing that you disagree with, and build up the muscle that allows you to believe the other person and operate based on what they tell you. Because what you can’t do, what will lead to burnout is continuing to hold inconsistent ideas in your mind. “I absolutely must do this and I cannot get any of my other work done. I’m going to get in trouble for disagreeing in this area.” and “We’re going to be heading for the cliff if I say anything.” If you hold those kinds of inconsistent ideas in your head, it will burn you out. It takes enormous energy and causes great strain. Stop doing it. Instead, disappoint people, hopefully show your disagreement, create productive conflict. It’s terrifying, but tremendously valuable.

Jeffrey: I really like the example you gave of the person agreeing, because now that you’ve said it again it reminds me of how I’ve seen a very similar dynamic. Often when I’m having teams replying back to executives about what can get done, the executives are disappointed, but usually they are also willing to deal in reality, and can accept the fact that they’re not going to get what they want. Meanwhile, the team feels really bad, “oh, no, they’re disappointed. That’s not acceptable.” But as I’m watching it, the executive is being a perfectly capable adult who can deal with disappointment. It’s the team who isn’t trusting that that’s actually what’s going on, much like what you’re describing here of the person who wouldn’t take the good news. So I agree with you completely, you need to be willing to listen and not assume the other person is necessarily going to be unreasonable. If you’re convinced that they’re going to be unreasonable, you’re not really having the conversation. You might be saying things, but you’re not really conversing if you’re not willing to listen to them and deal with it. Part of it might be that they are going to be disappointed and it’d be more comfortable if everyone could get what they wanted. But maybe that’s not possible right now. So I like your example.

Squirrel: I’m glad you do. There’s a fantastic concept from the world of chess, which I know we’re both interested in, and that that concept is that “the threat is stronger than the execution.” (Barking) My dog obviously agrees. So when you say the threat is stronger than the execution, what you’re saying is that by causing your opponent to be worried about something, you actually do more damage than actually taking the piece or giving check or whatever it is that you’re going to do. Similarly, I think in a situation where you trap yourself this way, you’re allowing the situation to control you and the threat that the other person might disapprove stops you from ever having the conversation, from ever finding out whether your burnout is legitimate and justified or not. The vast majority of the times when I disappoint people helpfully and when my clients do, they find out it’s a lot better than they thought. I think that must be what happened to your folks who who saw such improvement.

Jeffrey: Absolutely. It’s worth pointing out that at least in some cases, these people who I was dealing with knew about the kind of skills we talked about, the conversational skills, and they would agree in the abstract that they should have the difficult conversation. The challenge that they face is they that they didn’t have the developd skills to do it. One of the key steps here was to do the practice, to go and get a piece of paper and create the two columns and do the conversation analysis on the specific conversation that they wanted to have, or the specific conversation where they felt they couldn’t say no, and to do the practice to figure out how they could could introduce the topic they want to discuss. Once they did that, they could then go have the conversation. So to stress, we talked many times about having the difficult conversation, and it’s worth reinforcing, that means actually doing the work you need to get the piece of paper, get the pen, do the two-column case study. It doesn’t take that long and it has tremendous payoff. I wanted to make a strong case for that, having recently experienced cases where people weren’t doing that despite knowing the theory, and of course weren’t getting the benefit because they weren’t doing the work, to be able to put themselves in the place to skillfully have that conversation.

Squirrel: Well, I’m convinced. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.