Is it burning out or burning up?

In the same way that flight versus fight is easily discernible, managers need to be adept at recognizing and properly addressing whether their employees are burning out or burning up.

“I’m worried about them burning out!”

As a performance coach, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that phrase, especially since the pandemic arrived. However, half the time after having gone through the particulars, I find myself concluding that the person was not burning out, at least not in the way burnout is traditionally defined.

I wasn’t sure what was occuring, but I knew the problem needed to be addressed. According to a recent New York Times article, “We Have All Hit a Wall,” 34 percent of respondents in a study of 2,651 people reported feeling burnt out, 22 percent said they were depressed and 37 percent reported feeling stressed.

Burning out — being lethargic, disengaged, fatigued, missing deadlines and leaving people with the impression that you’ve quit, but you’re staying — is a phenomenon that is all too common, especially in these current turbulent and stressful times.

However, these were not the symptoms that were being described in the other cases I was seeing. Those exhibited hyperactivity, anger, resistance, irritation, antagonism and quitting on the spot after a particularly bad day, were all very different and, I would argue, more reflective of an individual “burning up.”

It got me thinking: Are employees like engines on an airplane — some of which stop performing because they burn out, and some of which stop performing because they burn up?

Both an engine burning out or burning up can lead to a horrific and highly undesirable outcome. If they are truly different, they would manifest different symptoms, perhaps have different underlying causes and therefore need to be dealt with in different ways.

On the off chance this analogy might fly (pun intended), I contacted a dear friend who had retired as a captain for a major commercial airline, with years of experience in the air and in simulators where engines are subject to failure. Here’s what they told me:

“They’re obviously both engine failures, and regardless if the failure is due to a burn out (flame out), or a burn up (flame on), it isn’t an issue that’s immediately catastrophic since an aircraft will fly on one engine. However, how each is dealt with is different since a fire situation will typically only make things worse over time if not attended to in short order.”

So, regardless of whether the employee is burning out (no more spark) or burning up (sparks are flying), the employee stops performing. However, both the symptoms and the responses to them are different. It’s quite likely that the remedies are very different.

“Engine failure requires a number of responses, the first being to fly the aircraft because any deviation from this primary objective can be catastrophic.” The employee must be attended to at the first sign of a failure to perform.

“Then you must determine the cause and extent of the failure and decide on your course of action based on the causal analysis.” A smart manager would do just that: Try to identify and eradicate the cause rather than simply treat the symptom(s):

“There are myriad options —  is an engine restart possible, should the engine be shut down, should we land as soon as possible, should we continue on to our destination, should we declare an emergency, should we inform the flight attendants, should we inform the passengers (knowing that perhaps they’ve already seen the evidence) — all of which need to be considered and weighed in terms of risk and the probability of a successful outcome.”

If a manager notices an employee exhibiting performance problems, there are often a myriad of options that might be exercised, all of which need to be considered and weighed in terms of risk and the probability of a successful outcome.

Before deciding on what remedy might be best, it’s critical for managers to diagnose the issue based on what symptoms are clearly being presented. Is it burning out, or burning up?

  • Retreating is a symptom of burning out, while attacking in exhibition is a symptom of burning up.
  • Is there a spark? “Flame gone” is a symptom of burning out, while “flame on” is a symptom of burning up.
  • Slowly chilling is a symptom of burning out, while overheating is a symptom of burning up.
  • Burning out likely has a longer duration, while burning up is likely to occur quickly.
  • Someone who is burning up may well have been burning out for a while, and is now releasing all of the energy that’s been pent up.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about the burning out or burning up of an employee or an airplane, the overarching objective is the same: Determine the cause and what is needed to get back to performing. But are the remedies for assisting an employee who is burning out the same as for an employee who is burning up?

No. An employee who’s burning out might decline at a much slower pace and might still be seen as performing, albeit not well, as the decline is occurring, but an employee who’s burning up will likely become much worse if not attended to in short order.

Someone who is burning out can be likened to someone who is retreating (taking flight) in the face of continuing pressure, so it’s best to help them LAND:

  • Let them know you’re concerned.
  • Attend to their need to be safeguarded.
  • Never push. Always pull back to a place of comfort.
  • Develop a joint solution.

On the other hand, someone who is burning up can be likened to someone who is fighting against the pressure, and they need someone’s help to be CALM:

  • Concentrate on listening to them.
  • Ascertain the issues.
  • Let them know what you will do to remedy the situation.
  • Make good on your commitments.

In either case, it will be the manager’s ability to see the symptoms for what they are, comprehend what is actually occurring, grasp the underlying causes and,most importantly, act accordingly being as it is the most critical variable in the solution to the problem. To put it differently, no action on the part of the manager (pilot) is a dereliction of duty, and taking the wrong action could prove to be catastrophic. Here is more advice from my friend, the retired airline captain:

“Lest I overlook the importance of a measured, not distracted reaction to any non-normal situation, I refer you to the very sad case involving TransAsia flight GE235 a few years ago where the crew, in their haste to respond to an emergency situation, mistakenly secured (shut down) the good engine, instead of securing the failed engine, resulting in more than 40 deaths.”

Managers must recognize that while declines in employee performance are often easily observable, there is a fundamental difference between an employee who’s burning out and an employee who’s burning up, and the remedies are clearly not the same.

In the same way that flight versus fight is easily discernible, managers need to be adept at recognizing and properly addressing burning out versus burning up, because a misreading or misunderstanding could very well result in the misapplication of the proper remedy, the negative consequences of which could be dire and avoidable.