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Consultant Burnout By Michael D. Mitchell

Consultant Burnout 

Michael D. Mitchell

The term “burnout” is very graphic – suggestive of extinguished fires and charred remains – and one may well wonder how it relates to consulting and what  consultant burnout means.

As I have come to know the burnout phenomenon – by living through it and from conversations with many consultants – it involves a “using-up” of energy and of the “internal fires” that drive an individual. To say that someone is “in burnout” then is to say that he or she is somewhere in a progressive process of fatigue and depletion of personal resources.

A consultant who has a project scheduled to begin the next day but feels somewhat depressed and unwilling to go; a consultant who glances at his watch when
working with a group, thinks about going home in twelve hours, and suddenly realizes that he has not heard a word said in the group for the last ten minutes; a consultant who begins to muse about his own career plans – doing what he “really wants to do” – and then becomes aware that none of the things that occur to him even remotely resemble conducting a project like the one in which he is involved – these are examples of consultant burnout.

Internal Drive

Many consultants are indeed driven by internal fires.  Perhaps we see other possibilities, new alternatives for living in organizations, alternatives that we focus on because:
– despite our insistence on pragmatism
– we are often idealists.  Many of us are in the field because the work
we do is consistent with our values: we get satisfaction out of helping others
and making the organization effective.
If this is admirable, it also makes us vulnerable to burnout.

Non Association

When I say that burnout is a depletion of the internal fires that drive a consultant, I mean that the energy is reduced; I do not mean to suggest that
the values behind the energy are necessarily modified.  Of course, idealism is not the only factor that motivates consultants.  The need for achievement, the desire for pleasure in one’s work, the inability to say no to clients, the hunger for work, the fear of failure, the fear of not being fully utilized, the need for acceptance and affiliation – these drives are familiar to many of us.


Although this paper is directed to the phenomenon as it affects consultants, burnout is certainly not limited to organization specialists.  On the contrary it seems to afflict people in a wide range of helping professions.  It seems to occur because of the often non-reciprocal balance of the relationship
between consultant and client.  The relationship is often characterized by giving, supporting, listening, empathizing – much investment on the part of the consultant with little feedback or even acknowledgment on the part of the client.  Although non-reciprocity is inevitable and acceptable, it is also draining.  No one can function long in a helping profession without feeling its impact.

In fairness to clients, responsibility for the non-reciprocity is partly the consultant’s.  Many professionals have a need to give and to overwhelm themselves in the consultation/helping process.  I cannot count the consultants I have talked to who have no time for themselves, who live in hotels, whose marriages dissolve while they seek desperately to meet all the needs of all their clients.  Being overwhelmed with work has many gratifications, but it has a tendency to be self-destructive.

Burnout Stages

The fire tetrahedron

When one is in the process of burnout, a series of progressive stages are involved, although each person may have different symptoms and varying rates of
progression.  Burnout typically begins after several years of strenuous professional activity.  In my case, it was after three years of on-the-road consulting.  The more intensive one’s personal professional investment, the more rapidly one can expect the stages of burnout to appear: stage one, physical fatigue;  stage two, psychological fatigue;  stage three, spiritual fatigue.

Physical Fatigue

At his stage of burnout, the consultant often feels tired, dragged out, and lethargic.  Some of the fatigue is real, caused by long ours, jet lag, and intensive, demanding work – but part of it is not.  The consultant simply feels drained.  Whereas a good night’s sleep used to take are of rejuvenation, now it no longer brings recovery.  Colds, flu, aches and pains also seem to be ore common.  If the consultant does not onsciously do so, his or her body may take responsibility for temporarily ithdrawing him or her from action.

Psychological Fatigue

This stage includes many of the physical symptoms, and more.  It involves an alienation from clients and from tasks facing one and a significantly increased desire for variety and uniqueness in consulting activities.  The consultant not only tires easily, but he finds it difficult to invest as much in the clients as before.  Clients can seem grasping, self-centered, and unappreciative.  The consultant may have the feeling that he or she has to conserve energy because “everyone wants a piece of me, and there is not enough to go around”.

Many of the symptoms of this stage may be quite unconscious, but they are recognizable: spontaneous feelings of depression when traveling to client
meetings, increased irritability and susceptibility to minor trauma, unconscious avoidance of present and potential clients, and increasing sensations of déjà vu in consulting situations. The consultant not only craves greater uniqueness and newness in his or her work, but at the same time experiences a reduced ability to see the uniqueness that actually exists in ongoing relationships.  Feeling very much alone, alienated, tired, and bored, the consultant easily moves into the third stage.

Spiritual Fatigue

This stage is a natural consequence of the one preceding it.  As the consultant progressively feels unable to invest in other, threatened by others’ needs, and drained of energy and interest, he or she turns, consciously or otherwise, to thoughts of escape.  The consultant thinks about changing jobs, “hiding out” for a while, moving to a different area, or even moving into an entirely new profession.

Consultants at this stage frequently find themselves doubting their effectiveness (Do I really have an impact?), their values (Who am I doing all this for,
anyway?  Is it worth it?), and perhaps even the morality of their efforts (Have I really helped the organization, or have I just set up the people to get hurt the next time there is a power shift?).

At this stage, the consultant’s ability to invest in clients drops even lower.  This lack of involvement and the consultant’s own state of personal peril are communicated all too clearly to the client.  The client’s ability to derive help from the consultant decreases proportionately.  Client relationships weaken, and some drop away.  The perceived time for change has materialized.


Consider for a moment the consultant’s dilemma.  Like a priest or minister, the consultant sees a better world.  He or she believes it can become reality yet
knows the inappropriateness of “selling” it. It has to be modeled, to be demonstrated, to be made easily available to others.  Too, the work of the consultant
is often intangible.  Not only is the impact of his or her efforts rarely visible directly, but there is a dynamic quality to individuals and organizations that tends to blur the importance of the consultant’s contributions to perceived changes.  There is also the sensation of impermanence.  Time moves on (What have
you done for me recently?). Additionally, the needs of the client cause them to take more and more from the consultant.  The consultant feels less and less able to be human and more and more like a dispenser.  And on top of it all, there is the continual aloneness – often simply a result of the way the consultant works – that leaves the individual little time to devote to his or her own needs.

How does one cope with this dilemma?  I think the answer is obvious:  take care of yourself.

  • Put limits on your consulting time – both in terms of hours per day and days per month.  Treat your limits with respect.
  • Set time aside for yourself and use it, even if you feel “high” and think you do not need it.  If you do not need it now, you soon will.  Reserved personal time (one week out of five, two days per week, and so on) serves replenishment needs for the consultant in the same way that sabbaticals do for teachers and retreats do for religious leaders.  Do not be ashamed to recognize and meet your own needs.
  • Work with co-consultants – particularly with people you like – whenever possible.  It is not only fun and potentially more productive for the client, but when you team up with a colleague, you are reducing the chances of your own depletion.  You may even achieve some replenishment.
  • Develop long-term consulting relationships. Maintaining ongoing relationships with clients allows the consultant to avoid some of the alienation and aloneness of the “hired gun” professional.  Not only is the work likely to be more enjoyable, but the chances are greater for the consultant to see the results of his or her efforts.
  • Arrange to be with “significant others” on a regular basis, if possible.  You need support, recognition, reassurance, and opportunities to step out of your consulting role in order to share your feelings and thoughts with others.

Whether as a prevention of burnout or as a response to its symptoms, I think the foregoing are the requisite coping mechanisms. Of course, there are other possibilities, including the following:

  • Limit your investment in clients.  This is a theoretical solution only; personally, I do not know how to do this.  For instance, if I am working with a client, I begin to care about that client, and as I care, I invest.  If you can limit your investment, however, I recommend trying it.
  • Limit your clients.  This is more practical, but not many consultants seem willing to do it.
  • Change your career.  This is drastic, but there are many who have responded to burnout by doing exactly that.

Concluding Thoughts

Consultant burnout may not be inevitable; neither may it be avoidable.  It is, instead, common, tremendously debilitating, and likely to be unrecognized for what it is until the symptoms become problems.  For the internal consultant, the difficulty of coping may be greater than for the external consultant, who has greater control of his or her time and can thus schedule “personal time” without confronting organizational constraints.

It is clear that the consultant can gain a great deal from the experience of burnout:

(1)  a realization of his or her own limits and fragility;

(2)  an acquisition of the skills for renewal, as the consultant is forced to pay attention to his or her own needs;

(3)  a strengthened commitment to changing ineffective behaviours and nonproductive investments;

(4)  increased personal growth as a result of struggling to cope with and to reduce the pain of burnout.

One result that burnout does not produce, unfortunately, is immunization from burnout in the future.  It can occur repeatedly, or it can stretch out, with minor regressions, over a period of years.  Both for consultants who have not experienced burnout and for those who have, coping with its causes will
continue to be a necessity.

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Focusing Change to Win Series – How Well is Your “What” Connected to Your “Why”?

 Series Overview

This is the second in the series of highlighting contributions from 1072 Business Leaders and Consultants from 80 countries in 19 Industry Sectors detailed in our book Focusing Change to Win. Each blog gives some of the key findings and a sample of useful tips. In this blog we are focusing on How Well is Your “What” Connected to Your “Why”? Here are the other book sections we are highlighting and can register for a free webinar.


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How Well is Your “What” Connected to Your “Why”?

We take an in-depth look at how our contributors improve their chances of thriving, by communicating in ways that build trust and engage people. For these contributors, communication must constantly focus on the Why of Change & What is Expected and what the change is not about. This is the Change Expectations Framework. It engages deeper understanding and helps everyone manage stress more effectively.
Note: You may think everyone does these three steps, you are probably wrong at least 70% of the time according to studies over the last 10 years. Here’s why it is even more important today. Most contributors (89%) say that their organizations change at least every 12 mths . These changes are driven by 3-4 simultaneous reasons for change . All these changes should have three things in common. What you expect people to:

  • Stop doing, (so that they can start doing new things)
  • Start doing, and
  • Continue doing

How often does your organization initiate change

Yet, this survey’s findings show that contributors rarely mention all three in the same contribution. Why is this important? It creates increased stress and potentially change resistance. It works like this.
Assuming we are always managing change with limited resources like people, money, technology and time, leaders have to manage the tension between these three elements of stop, start and continue. Then, after deciding the commercial need for change, leaders need the Emotional Intelligence to identify which groups and individuals are likely to experience unhealthy stress and resistance.
This underscores the need for leadership consensus on why are we changing. For many contributors, leader inconsistency fuels people’s natural resistance . The ever-increasing rate of change demands that leaders give clear and compelling reasons for employees to overcome their feelings of here we go again . Unfortunately, we conclude that too many leaders either ignore, or are unaware that change will be stressful for their peers and employees.

Contributors readily see the need for change to adapt, survive or improve. The world’s ever-increasing pace demands that leaders give clear and compelling reasons for employees to overcome their feelings of here we go again. That response begs the question: What can leaders do about this condition. What follows are some thoughts.
All those implementing change know in advance, to some extent, that a change will be stressful and that not everyone will be willing to engage. For example, people often work well under certain stress to increase productivity. But, under other circumstances, they are surprised at the stress that another aspect of change can induce. So, stress can be negative, positive or neutral. For example, passing in an examination can be just stressful as failing. The problem occurs when people are under excessive or prolonged stress – Unhealthy Stress. The challenge for change leaders is that stress is unique and personal. A situation may be stressful for someone, but the same situation may be challenging for others.

Action Points: Reducing Employees Stress to Manage Change Resistance

Most contributor responses indicate that their organizations change anywhere from daily to annually. These changes are often unique to the organization, the triggers for change, and how change is managed. Yet all change has three things in common.

The Three Common Elements of All Change

Defining your own change and how it is managed starts with the following:

  • Identifying what you expect people to stop doing, so that they can start doing new things
  • Specifying what you expect people to start doing
  • Confirming what you want people to continue doing, while continuing to coordinate and keep the organization running.

Focus on communicating constantly the why of change and what is expected for your change to be effective and communicate what the change is not about. This is the change expectations framework, which engages deeper understanding and helps everyone manage stress more effectively.

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