I just finished a super interesting read from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) titled “Generosity Burnout”. I would highly recommend that everyone download a copy.
The idea behind generosity burnout is this: our best career advice for others is to be a servant leader, pay it forward, be nice, help others, etc. However, if every time someone asked, we said “yes”, we could be placing ourselves in a position where we’re sacrificing our own well-being and goals for others. Hence, creating stress and burnout. There’s a line in the article that really resonated with me, “The road to exhaustion is often paved with good intentions.”
By pointing this out, I’m not implying that the answer is to say “no” to requests. Adam Grant, author of the book “Give and Take” A Revolutionary Approach to Success” and one of the co-authors of the HBR article, reminds us it’s about becoming what he calls a “self-protective giver”. Basically, it’s about giving in a way that creates high-value while utilizing few resources, a concept we’re always striving for in business.
If you want to balance giving with stress levels, they key is to focus on three things:
- What you give away: Just because you can give something away, doesn’t mean you should. As a consultant, I’m reminded of this on a regular basis. Organizations will ask consultants to give away their expertise in exchange for “exposure”. Let’s be real, there’s no exposure. But there could be times when it makes sense to waive fees. That’s our individual decision to make. We should spend some focused time thinking about what we’re willing to give away (and what we can’t).
- When to give: Everyone has times when they’re absolutely slammed with work and personal stuff. And times when they have greater flexibility. Individuals have to decide if they have the time to give and respond accordingly. Saying “yes” and not delivering only hurts your reputation. It’s better to say, “Sorry, I’m in the middle of a big project right now…can I participate another time?” or “I can do it if my deadline is next week, not this week.” Deadlines can sometimes be negotiated.
- Who you give to: People will send you requests all the time. It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall. They just want to see who says “yes.” And you don’t have to sign on board. It’s true, there will be people who you are close to that, when they call, you say “yes”. But the number of people in that category is probably pretty small. If someone calls and the request looks fun or interesting, you might agree. When in doubt, look at #1 and #2 for answers.
Being a kind and generous person is a good thing. It will help you in business and in life. But no one should be creating stress for themselves in the process. This is true regardless of your job title. If you work inside a company, you might get asked to do things that aren’t really related to your role. Sometimes we think we have to say “yes”, when we really don’t.
I can see generosity burnout being a real thing that individuals need to recognize and manage. The downside is that each of us will have a unique formula for dealing with it. That could be a good thing – because self-awareness is a very powerful solution.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby after speaking at the SHRM Annual Conference in Las Vegas, NV6