Burn Out and Bad Apples

One in a series of Case Studies with the Mindful Leadership Foundation which explore why some people in public service become miserable doing what they love: and how leaders of the social and caring professions can prevent burnout and nurture resilient and compassionate teams. If any of this is familiar to you, please share your story and your ideas.

Kristin is a new Housing Director, taking on the challenge to turn around an under-performing department, with a poor performance and customer service track record. The Housing Team is one of the principal customer interfaces, whose purpose is to help tenants with problems with their homes, their tenancies, their neighbours and communities. But this was not a happy or successful team, and it showed in their lack of hope, pride or enjoyment in their work. They avoided tenants and tricky issues; felt under-valued and over- worked; blamed other colleagues, the budget/policy/procedure, or even their customers; and came across as self-interested with little empathy for others.

I began to understand that these problems were symptoms caused by a number of underlying management and infrastructure issues: Not because these were ‘bad’ people.

Kristin, Housing Director

Most people get into Housing because they want to help others, but they get worn down by prolonged exposure to a controlling management culture, strict regulatory standards and external scrutiny, excessive bureaucracy, rationing of increasingly limited resources, negative media stereotypes, a focus on task and process (rather than purpose and outcome), and a never-ending supply of difficult, emotionally-draining situations to try and resolve with their tenants.

Kristin knew from networking, that this hadn’t just happened in her association, and that other Housing Directors were trying to address this phenomenon in a variety of ways – typically customer care training programmes, restructuring and redefining roles, and recruiting different skills. But she also felt strongly that more could be done to nurture and support people working in the front-line of housing, to sustain their sense of vocation, motivation, job satisfaction and achievement over the long-term.

To lose people to burn-out, poor performance, resignation or redundancy, is a terrible waste of all that early enthusiasm, and the skills and knowledge accumulated over the years.

Although we might not be able to significantly change the way the public sector works, it must surely be a worthwhile investment for Housing Associations to invest in the resilience, self-esteem and motivation of their field staff, so they can survive and thrive despite the bureaucracy, centralised standards and controls, spending cuts and increased customer needs and expectations.

Kristin’s Plan for Change

  • clearly state purpose, expectations of behaviour, roles and team-work
  • support the team-leaders to be resilient and lead the change
  • change KPIs and individual performance measures to be about outcomes for people
  • say thank you, praise others, promote and celebrate achievements
  • learn from mistakes and complaints and share ideas with colleagues
  • rethink policies, and have less of them, to simplify workflows and become more enabling guidelines rather than prescriptive procedures
  • provide regular team and training events
  • tackle the few ‘bad apples” and recruit new staff with the right people skills

But not everything went smoothly. The team-leaders struggled with the challenge of embracing the changes themselves whilst supporting their staff through the change process. They also found it difficult to tackle the few intransigent poor performers through the capability/disciplinary process at the same time as promoting more positive team-work. It took too long to move on the ‘bad apples’ and meanwhile their negativity detracted from the positive changes and drained the time and energy of the managers. Although the team-leaders were offered independent coaching support, they did not take this up because they were ‘too busy’.

It took time, really too much time, but gradually the mood of the team changed to be more positive, creative and achieving, with better feedback from customers and colleagues. On reflection, could more have been achieved more quickly, with more support to the team-leaders?


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