Managing Burnout

Work on conventions can be intense and overwhelming at times. Schedule pressures, conflicts with others, and sometimes just the mismatch between what we aspire to and the real constraints we have can suck the joy out of our work.   If you feel like that, you wouldn’t be the first person to say “I’m just burnt out.”

Burn-out really is a risk of this work we do.    Yes, the occasional ups and downs can be managed by a weekend away from email or a chance to vent.  Sometimes going to another convention and just having fun there can give you new perspective.  But persistent indications like the following can do long term damage

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism, either feeling that you no longer care about your work, or that no one else cares about the problems you are wrestling with. Cynicism can also express itself as despair, or a feeling that nothing will ever be better.
  • Declining ability to be proud of your work, especially for things you are good at and used to enjoy.
  • A compassion gap – losing your temper, lacking patience with others, and even feeling angry a good deal of the time.
  • Physical symptoms of stress, however your body expresses that.

Action is important.  Don’t ignore burn-out but do try to act on it. Here are some things you can do:

  • Get support from others. You’ll find that many of us have experienced these warning signs of burnout before. Knowing that you’re not alone can be helpful in itself.
  • Time box the work.  Make it clear when you are available for your volunteer work but preserve some time that is just yours or your family’s that is not consumed with the convention.
  • If you feel like you’re constantly trying to do the impossible, perhaps you are. Talk with others to drop, delegate, or defer tasks until the work in front of you is manageable again.
  • Meetings can be a helpful way to get work done and get information you need or they can be a drain on your resources.   Ask for agendas, and communicate your needs  in advance so that meetings can be as useful as possible.

There are also things you can do that support your colleagues and help manage burnout for others:

  • There is no ribbon for “Tiredest Staff Member “. Don’t turn “who can work hardest” or who is doing the most into a competition.
  • When people express feelings of stress or anxiety about their work, don’t minimize those feelings or brush them off.
  • When you are able, work with your team within their stated work hours and work style preferences.
  • Post agendas for meetings you are holding so people know whether the meeting will be valuable to them.

Invest in robust issue tracking and knowledge management. Knowing that tasks and important information won’t “slip between the cracks” allows our brains to rest.

Here are a few resources that help fight burnout.  It’s not a complete list but some things that have been repeatedly recommended to me.

  • HeadSpace or other sources of guided mindfulness meditation.
  • How To Recover From Burnout
    Internet quizzes are not a substitute for professional opinion but a good one can give you some idea of what you can be asking yourself.
  • You don’t have to use the methodology in David Allen’s classic  Getting Things Done but a task tracking method that works well for your brain and your habits can make progress visible in useful ways.

I wrote the first draft of this post many months ago.  Over the course of 2020, burn-out has become a fact of life for many of us, and mental health issues have risen rapidly.  If you are reading this, and think you are burned out, please act on it.  Burn-out is dangerous to your long term physical and mental health. 

If your burn-out is leading you to despair and thoughts of self-harm,  you are not alone, and help is available.   The  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Thank You Note Culture

I’d like to live in a world in which people are good at saying “thank you” and even seek out opportunities to do so. Whether the medium of the “thank you” is a tip on the table, a fancy paper note, or a chocolate chip cookie, sincere appreciation of what we like is one of the best ways of getting more of those good things later on.

But when it comes to the paper — or even email — written kind of thank you note, lots of people freeze up. There might be lots of problems between the writer and the written word, but one of them is that once you’ve said thank you, you’re kind of done. And the obvious place turns out to be just the wrong place to start.

Dear Grandpa,
Thank you for the birthday present.

Now what? I already said thank you! It’s a thank you note! Am I done yet and can I play with the Lego now?

I tried out a three sentence thank you note template when my own kids got stuck, and it worked pretty well.
1. How did you feel when that great thing happened?
2. What good thing is going to happen because of it?
3. Thank you!

Dear Grandpa,
I was so excited to get a Lego set from you. I am going to have the tallest towers of anyone I know! Thank you for thinking of my birthday.

It worked for me today at work; filing off all the unnecessary details, the email basically said:
Dear J,
I really appreciated the extra effort you made reaching out in today’s meeting. You improved my team’s understanding of the problems you deal with. Thanks for taking the extra time!
Best regards,

My three sentence thank you note template helped me today. It gave me a moment to be mindful of my own gratitude, a moment to share with the recipient their positive impact on the world, and a frame that demonstrated the sincerity of my words of thanks. And that’s the world I want to live in.

What the heck is “Culture”, anyway?

“Culture” is such a useful word, and so hard to pin down. Often, when discussions of organizational or community culture come up, people get lost in a big long discussion of “what is culture”. A couple of years ago, I was reading a fascinating book Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation by Michael Agar, and I came across the following paragraph:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior, acquired and transmitted by symbols constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (I.e, historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action. [Kluckhohn and Kroeber]

I had to put the book down, take deep breaths, and say “why didn’t I read this book 15 years ago?” because it moved “culture” from the vagueness of “I know it when I see it” to something I could clearly talk about.  In particular,  this definition makes it clear that “culture” is BOTH emergent from behavior  and the rules for the behavior, constantly in negotiation with each other.

So, culture is stories, culture is what we’re conveying when we say “That’s not what we do around here”, culture is the material objects we surround ourselves with,  culture is memory made public  …  all of those partial ways  of grasping at describing what culture is, and many more, are embedded and implied in that paragraph.

Since that day,  I have found myself going back to my notes and quoting this paragraph over and over again, and I’m putting it here because that will make it easy for me to find for the next 17 times I want to talk about “what the heck is culture anyway?”

Keeping Communications Clear

This weekend I learned a thing about management communications.

I’ve yet to see an organization that doesn’tt complain about how terrible communication is. If only communications were just one thing! There are (at least) three kinds of management communications. One is just the facts, please communications that say things like The deadline is Thursday and we are meeting at 246 Main St. Someone has to say these things, clearly, and be responsible for getting the word out. Another type is motivational messages. This team is great.  Look at that challenge we just overcame. I’m so proud to be working with you all. They may sound a little corny, but saying these things at the right time matters a lot. Thank you is one of those messages, and I’d love every manager to have a goal to say thank you too much. And last but most complex of all, change management communications.

I’m not going to rewrite a book about change management in the next paragraph but I do want to emphasize that change mangement communications are often about managing people’s negative emotions – distrust, fear of a proposed change, and often, we neglect to admit, actual loss suffered because of a change. Somehow, despite those things, we’re giving them a reason to retain their commitment to the process. As well, change management messages often need to open a space for listening to find out if we’re actually making the right change.

But what I learned this weekend is that these three kinds of communication do not blend well with each other. Specifically, what I saw was a just the facts message with a change management message tacked onto the end. The context made the change management message seem concrete and unilateral, and the pushback of those who felt surprised was sharp and immediate. If the change had been framed in a separate communication, I believe there would have been a better chance of it landing well.

My takeaway is that trying to put more than one of these communication intents into a single message is advanced communications skills, and if not done quite carefully may change the message to have unexpected consequences. Figure out which kind of message you need today, and do them one at a time.

Respecting the No

We get enthusiastic about things and want to share them.  That’s great.  But conversation yesterday made me aware of how important it is to respect other people’s “no” when they don’t want to share.

We were talking, specifically, about the challenges of recruiting volunteers  — something that might be coming up in a lot of contexts, both political and social.   And there are even tasks at work that might best be thought of as volunteer work, labor that goes to enhance the social structure of  our workplaces but isn’t directly part of a job description.

Often in these cases,  we are enthusiastic about the task at hand, but when asking others to join us, we need to respect their “no”.  Not badger, not push, not make them feel guilty about not joining in. Let other people’s boundaries, even if we don’t understand their whys, be real to us.

I have to thank Mjnk for making the aspect of privilege clearly part of the conversation.   When we are recruiting for political or social organizations, we are asking for unpaid work, for a donation of someone’s time.   To someone with relative privilege and ability,  the marginal impact on their life may be small.  But to someone experiencing less privilege in any realm, the burden of the unpaid work may be disproportionate. That’s true for people with health challenges, financial challenges, or people in groups that are already marginalized.

We can reach out to people and ask them to share our commitments, our community building, and our enthusiasm.  But when they don’t or can’t invest their unpaid work, “respecting the no” means continuing to accept them as they are, with the gifts they bring willingly.


Remote Meeting Management 101

Meetings with remote participants are harder than other meetings.  We humans are better at conducting conversations when we have the full range of information from body language and facial expression to work with. But sometimes we have no choice but to communicate with our colleagues who cannot be together with us — and if we value their contributions, we’ll find a way to make this work.

There’s a range of variables that can make this easier or harder.

– Technology.  Ease of use of the technology, fitness for the purpose you’re using it for, and the participants’ familiarity with the tech in question are all aspects of this question.

– The purpose of the meeting – is it one way information dissemination, or do people need to come to new agreements?

– Time zones.  My nightmare scheduling scenario has people in India, Israel, US East Coast, and US West Coast.   Unfortunately, sometimes that’s team I need.   The best you can hope for is to make everyone equally unhappy with the scheduling.

– Is everyone remote?  In my experience, it seems easier to get remote meetings to work out equitably if everyone is working at the same level of remote-ness or technological access.  It is very difficult not to over-privilege the people who happen to be in the room if  some are together and some are far away.

Here are a few things I try to do when remote meetings are necessary.


On a broad, cultural level, an organization that wants to include remote participants needs to become convinced that this is going to incur extra cost (both in people’s effort and in investment in technology) and that these expenses are worthwhile investments at the organizational level.    The remote people should not be the ones incurring all of the expense in addition to the disadvantages of being remote.    The goal is to include them as valued colleagues and collaborators.

Define the communication technology you’re going to use and reach out about that early enough that people can correct their access issues if possible.  If the meeting is important, it might be possible to set up a prep meeting in which the communication can be tested or trained on.

If at all possible, make that communication channel use video.  A technology that makes it clear who is present in the meeting and who is not is preferable to one that allows for silent lurkers and other unacknowledged participants.  It’s difficult to make space for contributions from people when you don’t know they are present.

The Meeting Itself

Meetings with remote participants may need some more structure than other meetings.  All of the things that make a meeting successful go double for remote meetings: thus, agendas, note takers,  and meeting minutes are a key part of the success of the meeting.  If you are leading the meeting, consider having someone who has a side channel to you (private chat or co-located) who can be deputized to be observer and time keeper and notice if someone is falling through the cracks.

Try to have a shared artifact – an electronic whiteboard, a Google doc, or something, in which the progress of the meeting can be made visible.  This may give another channel for people to make contributions in parallel to the conversation.

It’s really important in remote meetings not to interrupt or talk over the ends of other people’s sentences.  Without the support of body language to help with turn taking and with the likelihood of more variation between conversational cultures [citation needed], it’s much harder to recover people’s participation if they feel sidelined.

If it’s a come-to-an-agreement kind of meeting, it’s extra hard to know whether you’ve got buy-in or just silence.  Call on people by name,  ask each person to chime in to their assent on the agreement specifically.  The recap at the end of the meeting, with actions and follow-ups and agreements made, is a good point to check in on this.  Leave twice as much time for this as you’d leave in a similar face to face meeting; if there are too many people to call on by name, it indicates that you may have too many people for a working meeting anyway.

Avoid ending the technologically accessible part of the meeting and then continuing with the “after meeting” discussion with just the people physically present.

Good luck! This is just the 101 and getting this right for your organization is not trivial or easy.  It is important work though and work that dramatically expands the pool of allies you can gather to conquer the world, run a con, or whatever other task you have set for yourself.


Toolbox: Getting Blame Off the Table

Blame distracts from finding useful solutions that make the systems we operate within safer, and interferes with productive change by causing defensive behavior.  That’s very logical and business-like, if that reasoning appeals to you.  But if you’ve ever been hit with that stick, you know blame hurts, and for me, that’s a good enough reason to try a different way.

There’s three tip-offs I know of that blame is going on and that focusing on individual behavior may be short-circuiting  investigation of the systems generating the problem.  By listening for these clues, it’s possible to get back on track.

  • Hindsight bias.  When hindsight bias is part of our discussion,  knowledge of what occurred as a result of an action influences the understanding of what was known and understood at the time of the action.  There are some clues in our language that this is going on.  The phrases “would have”, “could have”, and “should have” often indicate judgements about the past from the standpoint of the present.
  • Use of the phrase “human error”.  It’s not that people don’t make mistakes.  But the conclusion that “human error” is the cause of the problem distracts from looking at the system that allowed the error to occur, and focuses on who to blame. Here’s a diagnostic question to get back out of this trap: “Would another reasonable person in the same situation have made the same mistake?”  If the answer is “yes”,  then that’s a clue that more investigation of the surrounding system is needed for safety.
  • Fundamental attribution error.   When we’re explaining our own actions, we often find external causes for our choices, yet believe that other people’s choices came from unalterable internal characteristics.  Imagine the case in which a step was skipped in a set of instructions.  If we did that ourselves, we might extend explanations such as “time pressure” or “confusing instructions”. Yet if another person does the same thing, particularly a stranger,  we may leap to explanations that represent their personal failings as the source of their actions,  such as “sloppiness”.   The presence of attribution bias makes it hard to respond generously and with respect to people who may be very unlike ourselves, and it’s also hardest one of these three to spot and  challenge. A question that might help detect this is, “Would I believe this explanation if the person being criticized were my best friend?”

It’s hard to avoid blame and even harder to recover from the damage it does to trust and cooperation.  There’s no shortcut to rooting it out of  difficult discussions, but with awareness of the factors above it gets easier to spot and turn around.



Adding to the liturgy of safety

These are things for which no limit is prescribed: writing unit tests;  running meetings with a clear agenda;  talking to stakeholders; acts of kindness; and the study of safety
These are the things which not only profit one in the immediate moment but build up a safety culture for the future:  refactoring one’s own code;  reviewing a peer’s code; establishing test systems;  conducting blame-free incident reviews;  documenting processes;   increasing the diversity of your teams;  resolving differing mental models;  and the study of safety engineering principles surpasses them all.

This riff on Mishnah Peah was inspired  by a new safety teaching program we’re beginning at work,  a stray comment about the “safety liturgy” and some demonstrations of the same by friends,   and also by  this reframing of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.


What can we do locally about the attacks on immigrants?

Attacks and threats on immigrants are here, and with Trump’s 10 point program seem set to increase exponentionally in the New Year.  What can we do locally in response?   Here’s one tiny thing, but if more people made this comment perhaps it would have weight.  To send a comment to Gov Baker, go to his contact page.

Dear Governor Baker,
In just the first few days after the election, Trump has declared his intention to pursue a vigorous and harsh policy on immigration.  The enforcement of this policy will cause harm and destruction to individuals and communities across the Commonwealth.

Even under the Obama administration, there were substantiated issues about recklessness and lack of due process within ICE.    The Trump administration will have no interest in reining that in or providing judicial restraint and appeals for people who may be wrongly and unfairly targeted.

Last spring, you announced a policy of cooperation between the state police and ICE.  Our state police  should be protecting and defending the people of the state.  No cooperation should be made with climate of xenophobia and recklessness encouraged by the new administration.

This would be an appropriate time to walk  that policy back and insist on due process taking place without assistance from the state apparatus of Massachusetts.    Please consider other measures as well to protect vulnerable immigrants and communities here from harsh and reckless policy changes at the Federal level.

Rachel Silber

The Grammar of Process Definition

When it comes to grammar, I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist, though I can be persuaded to tell you how I would have done it.   Your way is OK with me, though we might have to compromise if we intend to communicate with each other.

It turns out that the same range of approaches applies to process definition, and there too I fall more in the descriptivist camp.  Process documentation bears less relationship than it once did to what the people who execute the process actually do?   Time to rewrite the doc, believing that the people on the front line know what they are doing.

But, once we’ve garnered agreement that what we’re doing is what we intend to do , there will need to be some balance, some process governance to keep us aligned with those intentions.   Challenge accepted!