Team Burnout

One of the biggest problems with teams is burnout. Organizations experiencing burnout may be particularly ready to change: they are looking for relief from any source. Yet the path to organizational improvement for the team in burnout is fraught with danger: the very conditions that make the team open to change may sabatoge such change. Let's explore burnout in more detail, and consider some patterns that might be useful for teams that are burning out.

The Psychology of Burnout

Sometimes ill feelings can arise across the scope of an entire group or team, and the dynamics can often be laid at the feet of first- and second-level management. If a team as a whole or the team's manager feel threatened, the team is in danger of succumbing to two near-term countermeasures that often go hand in hand. The first is: work harder. Hard work, overtime, and shortened schedules are a common reaction to a wide spectrum of threats. The second is: hunker down. A team will close in on itself in the interest of completely shutting off detractions that could sap its time and energy or in any way detract from a focused effort to maintain control. It is an over-application of the pattern FireWalls. This can put the team at odds with influences that it should be heeding but which it feels it can resist. It can become a spiral that leads to increased desperation, harder work, and more overtime. These are the dynamics of burnout.

An organization that is burning out can't learn. It doesn't take the time to learn; all the time is focused on the deliverable. It may make stupid mistakes for failing to step back and see the big picture. This is why patterns like CompletionHeadroom and RecommitmentMeeting are crucial to a healthy organization. They keep the organization open to other individuals and teams--both teams they depend on, and teams that depend on them.

A group in burnout often tries to take control of everything it can because its members need the comfort of being in control. It may overstep its domain of authority and claim ownership for parts of the system outside its usual domain. A dysfunctional services group may rewrite parts of the operating system because it feels it can't trust the operating system people to do it right or to do it fast enough; in these scenarios, no one wins.

A worrisome sociological configuration arises in cases of extreme burnout. One strong team member — usually, but not always, a manager or lead technical person — takes charge, usually by creating a culture of fear, intimidation, co-option, or coercion. The resulting configuration, fed by the controlling individual, discourages social discourse, openness, and interactions outside the group. The group turns inward for all of its needs. In the most extreme cases of burnout where people are now spending much of their lives at the office, the team-centeredness extends beyond professional relationships to personal relationships. People start deriving their personal identity from work and from the team. Work relationships displace family relationships. The organization becomes ingrown, and incest becomes a good metaphor for what happens to the organizational family. The health of the organization and its individuals deteriorate, and there often is no turning back. Family and personal lives suffer. Eric Fogelin, a developer on the first release of Windows NT, had this experience [BibRef-Zachary1994]:

In the final push for the July release, however, he ... worked every day during the month of June, some days as long as twenty hours. He took most of his meals at Microsoft; the cafeterias on campus served breakfast and lunch, and a special meal was prepared for those working late on NT in building Two. Since he lived on an island about ninety minutes away, requiring a ferry ride to and from work, Fogelin never went home for thirty days during the height of the push. He slept on a cheap green cot he'd bought. It was nothing more than a piece of canvas stretched over a narrow metal frame. By day it stood upright near his desk, a sturdy reminder of the forfeiture of creature comforts for the soul of a computer program.
There is a small body of fascinating literature on this phenomenon to which we refer the interested reader; in particular, see the analyses by Bill White [BibRef-White1997], [BibRef-White1986]. You've probably heard the term: "get a life." People working in healthy organizations have "a life." They have outside interests, and their identity doesn't draw solely from work. A healthy work environment--one that can sustain its employees, learn, and grow--gives people the time and freedom for this individuation.

Crisis Management and Burnout

Ask a software professional about burnout, and crisis management or "death march" projects often come to mind. Some projects are poorly managed, particularly with respect to matched expectations between the customer and provider, and that can lead to obvious burnout.

However, some organizations manage by crisis. It is exactly this mentality that Deming railed against: to drive fear from an organization, to take the power of crisis away. Some popular methods today, such as Extreme Programming, offer this fear of fear as one of their prime drivers. But if one looks deeper one can find a deeper form of crisis management.

A protracted crisis mentality creates burnout, even in the absence of a real crisis. For example, daily status meetings are a hallmark of organizations in crisis. However, if the organization adopts a policy of daily status meetings, it perpetuates the crisis mode, or even creates a crisis mode. This can incent people to work harder. Even when not at work, the people will have work on their mind so they can look good at the morning status meeting. Other aspects of XP — such as the ability never to work alone, but to always have your thought processes open to a pair programmer — help sustain the crisis mentality.

Our studies have shown that crises strengthen management roles. In crises, managers tend to move toward the center of the organization, displacing the domain expert roles that carry the organization through everyday business. (You can see a social network diagram depiction of this phenomenon in the section StabilityAndCrisisManagement, below).