Manage Demands to Maintain Personal Agency


By Rob & Terri Bogue August 1, 2019

​Part 1: Where Does Burnout Come From?

Part 2: Calibrate Expectations to Prevent Burnout

Part 3: Manage Demands to Maintain Personal Agency 

Manage Demands to Maintain Personal Agency

This excerpt is adapted from Extinguish Burnout (SHRM, 2019) by Rob & Terri Bogue. It is the third in a three-part series on the effect of burnout at work.

Our belief that we're personally able to change our world, that we have control of our results in life, is a deep-seated belief that some might call a delusion. It allows us to proceed through our days without the fear that we'll be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow. Belief in our personal agency needs to find a place in the middle between powerless and omnipotent. We need to find an understanding of what we can and cannot do.

In one view of burnout, you believe that your personal agency is depleted, that somehow you have given all you have, and there's nothing left to give. Personal agency is our actual ability to get things done, though this may be vastly different from our perception of this ability. It's both a measure of the time available to do things as well as our physical and emotional ability to get things done. Consider a man with a shovel and lots of time. He has the personal agency to move a mountain—or, at least, a hill of dirt. Similarly, a man with a backhoe and a bit less time can move the same hill. Personal agency is the ability to move the hill of dirt, whether with a shovel or a backhoe.

Think of personal agency as a bathtub with three main sources pouring in: results, support, and self-care. The demands placed on us by ourselves or by others acts as a drain on our reservoir of personal agency.

Results can help us perceive our effectiveness and personal agency accurately. By leaning on the support of others, we can gain more personal agency than we might have alone. Self-care not only refills your personal agency, but it can help you increase your capacity for personal agency, too.

Managing Demands

Everyone has demands made upon them. From the routine electric bill to the extraordinary support demanded by your best friend in a time of need, demands on our abilities are a part of the human condition. Managing our reservoir for personal agency is as much about limiting the way we respond to the demands placed on us as it is about ensuring a steady supply of resources to replenish ourselves.

Often, the demands placed on us are unreasonable—or rather the way we want to respond to the demands is unreasonable. Certainly, if you have a best friend who needs you to take them to the airport you should—unless it represents a substantial sacrifice for you and means a relatively small benefit to them. We sometimes fail to test to see whether the demands that are being placed upon us personally, socially, and occupationally are reasonable.

Many who have a compassionate heart attempt to alleviate the suffering of others with no concern about how this depletes their own resources or reduces their own capacity to help others. We must recognize that we have a finite personal agency, and because of that, we can't afford to invest too much in everyone. Managing the demands that are placed upon us is perhaps the most difficult part of maintaining our personal agency and avoiding burnout. 

Rob and Terri Bogue write, speak, and consult on improving workplaces, managing organizational change, and developing talent.

Visit the SHRMStore to order a copy of Extinguish Burnout.


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