Help, My Boss is Competitive!
Do you feel emotionally drained from your job or doubt the significance of your work? Then you might be at risk for burnout. You are not alone. The number of people with symptoms of burnout continues to rise. Nearly one in five employees is suffering from burnout symptoms at work. Is this because employees cannot handle their jobs? Not necessarily. Although some employees handle stress better than others, it turns out that managers play a very important role in burnout as well.
Burnout occurs when employees experience a great deal of stress at work for such a long period of time that they cannot deal with it anymore. As a result, employees become emotionally exhausted, become more cynical toward the meaning of their work, and feel less capable of doing the tasks needed for their jobs. Whether or not someone will experience symptoms of burnout depends on many factors, such as personality traits and the characteristics of their job. But, one important factor in the work environment is often overlooked: managers.
In the execution of their daily work tasks, employees may face problems and setbacks. A primary task of managers is to give employees what they need to perform their jobs effectively. For example, managers may provide employees with advice, feedback, social support, or other resources that help them deal with problems, lower work-related stress, and reduce the risk of burnout. That's good news: managers may diminish the risk of burnout by providing resources.
However, there’s a catch: the kinds of help that managers provide their employees are partly determined by the manager’s own goals. And the resources managers provide may sometimes be experienced as burdensome.
Managers have different goals when doing their job. Some managers strive for self-improvement and development—these managers have mastery-approach goals. Other managers are more focused on competition and want to do better than others—these managers have performance-approach goals. They are motivated by a desire to compete and excel, which can be good for achieving goals or sales targets. But it can also have the side effect of pushing employees so hard that it leads to burnout.
Our research showed that managers who emphasize improvement and development had employees with lower burnout rates than managers who emphasized competition. Employees who worked for managers with competitive goals had a higher burnout rate.
In the workplace, managers’ goals send important signals to their employees. The behaviors of managers who pursue competitive goals may make it difficult for their subordinates to deal with problems and setbacks because they are constantly pushed to compare themselves with others and to work harder and harder. Rather than helping them to achieve the goal, competitive managerial behavior leads to additional stress, which may eventually result in employee burnout.
Imagine, for example, that you reached a certain work target and are very proud of it. A competitive manager may point out that a co-worker accomplished more than you within the same time. By comparing your performance with others, the manager turns your accomplishment into a negative experience. However, the more emphasis managers place on improvement and development, the lower the risk of burnout among employees, regardless of employees’ own goals.
Companies need to think carefully about what kind of managers they want to have. Competitive managers may achieve good results, but they can exhaust their employees and drive them to the edge, until they drop. That's why it's important to create a work environment in which learning and development are emphasized. Managers who stress learning and development provide employees with feelings of safety by signalling that failure is not necessarily bad. This can help buffer against burnout. Companies should be aware that competitive managers can cause employee burnout and that they may benefit from defining employee success in terms of development and improvement rather than in terms of competition.
For Further Reading
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397–422. Retrieved from http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
Sijbom, R. B. L., Lang, J. W. B., & Anseel, F. (2019). Leaders’ achievement goals predict employee burnout above and beyond employees’ own achievement goals. Journal of Personality, 87(3), 702–714. http://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12427
Van Yperen, N. W., Blaga, M., & Postmes, T. (2014). A meta-analysis of self-reported achievement goals and nonself-report performance across three achievement domains (work, sports, and education). PloS ONE, 9, e93594. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093594
Roy B. L. Sijbom is Assistant Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at University of Amsterdam.
Jonas W. B. Lang is Associate Professor at the Department of Human Resource Management and Organizational Psychology at Ghent University and Distinguished Professor at the Business School of the University of Exeter.
Frederik Anseel is Professor of Management at UNSW Business School, Sydney.