Is it really burnout?

~ Values ~Photo of a person in a white shirt, face down, a notebook over their head, scraps of paper and a pair of glasses around them

~ Ethical behavior ~

~ Burnout ~

~ Meaning ~

What do these four things have in common?

They’re all related to how we feel about our work.

And of course they’re related to leadership as well.

So let’s start at the top.


Whether we take the time to identify them or not, we all have values.

The organizations we work for also have values – again, whether they’ve identified them or not, and, of course, whether the values they have identified are the values they actually demonstrate. Walking the talk – or not?

Ethical behavior

When the company’s values aren’t aligned with ours, we have a problem.

And we can run into something called ethical fading, which is what happens when it’s “okay” within the culture to act in self-beneficial ways, even when that action may harm others. It’s a slippery slope with a snowball effect: the little slips become commonplace, which allows bigger things to happen, and so on. If you look at case studies of organizations where significant dishonest and unethical behavior was uncovered, you’ll usually find that it happened small, even tiny, steps at a time.

Whatever’s going on, it doesn’t feel right. Maybe we don’t know why, or maybe we do, but there’s something that just feels off, and it makes our work experience uncomfortable. How uncomfortable depends upon the degree of mis-alignment.

Burnout … and something else

And then we have burnout. The daily struggle to do the work, to be present for and attentive to our jobs, becomes harder and harder.

It’s not “just” burnout, though – and this is important. A recent article in Fast Company points out that a mis-alignment of values can create what they called moral injury. (The article is here; link opens in a new tab.) Values mis-alignment, ethical fading – all this conflicts with who we believe we are and what we feel is right – i.e., causes moral injury – and creates stress and burnout and misery.


On the other hand, when our values and the company’s values – and our leader’s values – are at least reasonably-well aligned, we feel engaged. We feel like we’re doing something worth doing every day.

The role of leaders

Obviously senior leadership has a huge part to play in whether ethical fading and moral injury are prevalent within the company culture.

How organizational values are defined (usually badly – ahem!) and how they’re then enacted (often even more badly) is senior leadership’s responsibility.

What’s often overlooked, though, is that mid-level and first-line leaders and managers have a very important role. They’re the ones who are most often and most consistently connecting and communicating with the vast majority of any organization’s people.

When mid-level and first-line leaders aren’t provided with full awareness of this responsibility, and / or aren’t given the training and support they need to develop the skills and capacity necessary to fulfill that responsibility, they’re not prepared to communicate values, help their people understand what the values mean in day-to-day activities, or combat ethical fading.

And then you have burnout, moral injury, disengagement, unproductive teams, and – oh yeah! – the Great Resignation.

It’s that simple. And that important.

And that important. First-line and mid-level managers need leadership training right away, not only after they’re promoted into a senior role and need to solve bad habits – or when they’re in trouble. Giving training right up front actually saves money, time, and creates better results for the work they’re doing and their teams. Let’s talk.

Tip Simon Sinek and his book The Infinite Game, for the term “ethical fading.”