Prevent Organizational Burnout

How can organizations prevent or reduce organizational burnout? In the October 1965 issue of Harper’s Magazine, John Gardner wrote a treatise about…

Follow these steps to close the widening gap between your company’s potential performance and actual performance.

Systems are like babies—once you get one, you have it. They do not go away. On the contrary. They display a most remarkable persistence. They grow. They encroach.   

~ From “Systematics” by John Gall

How can organizations prevent or reduce organizational burnout? In the October 1965 issue of Harper’s Magazine, John Gardner wrote a treatise about this subject: “How to Prevent Organizational Dry Rot.” He stated that most organizations have a structure designed to solve problems that no longer exist. Some would argue that many organizations were never organized to do what they need to do.

In the book Organizational Burnout: Strategies for Prevention and Change, which I co-authored, we define organizational burnout as the widening of the gap between an organization’s actual performance and its potential performance. In other words, if that gap is widening over time, the organization is “burning out.”

Here are some steps that organizations should take to reduce the possibility the gap between their potential performance and actual performance does not widen over time.

Organizations must…

…have ambitious, realistic goals and objectives. Many organizations practice management by objectives with various levels of sophistication, but few successful organizations are without some process for goal-setting, measurement, and periodic reevaluation. To be effective, goals must cause the entire organization to “reach” in order to attain them.

…have built-in provisions for self-criticism.

To accomplish this, good two-way communication is needed. Positive upward communication necessitates that the organization provide a healthy and non-threatening environment for its employees. Employees should not be deterred in any way from offering constructive criticism. To do otherwise only fosters conformance instead of performance and compliance instead of commitment.

…involve employees in decision-making at every level.

Successful organizations have learned that to attain maximum efficiency, employees must be involved in the decision-making process at all job levels. This requires the use of teams—and good listening skills on the part of management. Some organizations do not receive or implement a single suggestion from their lower-ranking employees in a week, month, or even a year.

…have fluidity and constantly re-exam internal structures.

Not only should the structure of the organization be changed from time-to-time, but the duties and assignments of various managers at all levels must be changed as well.

…help employees to understand that it makes a difference whether they do well or do poorly.

In other words, employees must not only believe that they contribute to the organization; they must be recognized if they do well or corrected/counseled if they do poorly. A progressive system of financial rewards in the form of bonuses is one helpful way of recognizing employees at all levels. Organizations are frequently criticized by their own employees for being too lenient with poor performers.

If you are the CEO of an organization, you have a duty to recognize and reduce the possibility of organizational burnout. If you are in another management position within an organization that is “burning,” you have an obligation to share your concerns constructively with your superiors and begin countering the problems that may exist. If that fails, move to an organization where the management listens to its employees.

The bottom line is that there is no magic in systems. There is magic when people work together productively.

To comment on this article or share your own observations, or to schedule a presentation, contact Terence Moore at 989-430-2335 or


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