IPMA International Project Management Association
28 June 2021 / 9:42

Does underutilization of talent result in project staff burnout?

Project staff operate in a deadline-driven environment and, hence, have to deal with a lot of pressure (Pinto, Dawood & Pinto, 2014). That is to not only accomplish work as per client requirements with quality but also to handle uncertainties and unknowns inherent in project work. The situation requires project staff to use their explicit and implicit talent and knowledge to deliver high-quality work.

Further, as projects are adhoc endeavors so is the configuration of project teams. What it means is that project organization or teams go through several instances of construction and de-constructions. It results in project staff having to work with several different project organizations in their career.

This is good in many ways as it enables project staff to gain experience of working in various different project environments alongside people of varying knowledge, experience, and backgrounds. At the same time, it poses challenges in relation to talent utilization as it may not be easy to know and recognize the talent that people possess, as people are on the move most of the time.  And when they are on a project, they are part of project organization only for project duration – during which focus is typically on triple constraints, not on talent management.

Particularly, if the project is of short duration then the project manager will not have enough time to recognize the pool of talent that is available within the team as the project may include team members that the project manager may have never worked with before.

The situation could lead to underutilization of talent available within the project team, which could result in a sense of dissatisfaction, feeling of nonfulfillment, lack of self-actualization, and stress among project staff. If the circumstances persist for a longer time, they could result in project staff burnout.

Let’s first define what staff burnout is. It is defined as “a work-induced syndrome combining emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment” (Gkini, Hussain, Taylor & Bewley, 2020).

Given the definition, one can argue that the non-utilization of talent on a project could create a sense of reduced personal accomplishment and resultant burnout.

Now the question is how we avoid burnout happening? How do we get to know more about the talent available at the disposal of project organizations? How we provide opportunities so that available talent is put to use and does not go unnoticed or waste?

Well, there are no easy answers. Below we propose some of the ways in which talent can be identified and put to use. Needless to say, the proposed strategies are just meant to build some thoughts on how to deal with burnout due to underutilization of talent and should not be taken as exhaustive measures.

  1. Review and understand the available talent pool

One of the common strategies proposed in talent management literature is to review and understand the nature and level of the available talent pool (Silzer & Dowell, 2009). Project managers can get a list from HR about the training done and skills that employees on the project officially known to possess. However, knowing the implicit talent will be not easy as they are often get highlighted in a natural way during the course of the work.

It is important that efforts are made to get to know about the talent inventory, so that talent is fully utilized, else, staff could feel dissatisfied and burnout could set in.

  1. Offer opportunities to let people shine

Project managers and leadership within the project need to assess the talent by advertising and highlighting opportunities for various tasks so as to get to know ‘who can do what’ apart from the role that they are assigned to (Silzer & Dowell, 2009).

In a typical scenario, project staff is assigned to various roles at the start of the project as well as during execution as needed. But projects involve uncertainties and emergence caused by problems and un-forecasted events. There could be people within the team to offer help and troubleshoot. It then becomes the responsibility of the leadership team to put available talent to use. Highlighting the opportunities or tasks where help and support are needed could motivate people to offer their help. People with relevant knowledge and skills are more likely to come forward and get a feel of self-accomplishment.

However, if people know that there is some problem(s), issue(s), or something that they can help with, but they are not involved then that could lead to a feeling of disconnection, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction. Resultantly, burnout could set in.

  1. Have some plan to use talent inventory

Project management is a lot to do with planning due to constraints of time and resources. The project manager and leadership team need to have a plan to effectively use talent available within the team so that people get the feeling of self-accomplishment and a sense of achievement.

Planning would involve dividing the talent pool into categories such as based on skills (e.g. technical, non-technical managerial, administrative, soft), level (e.g. beginner, intermediate and advanced), years of experience (e.g. technical, management, administration, etc), extra-curricular activities, and global vs local experience.

Such planning may sound a lot, however, it could be easily done with the help of HR. A little time spent on the planning side of talent management could be very beneficial in utilizing the available talent to create value for the project and avoiding burn-out.

  1. Look for telltale signs of burnout

Project leadership needs to actively look for signs that may indicate a possible staff burnout. It may not always be the case that the staff burnout will occur due to under-utilization of talent, but signs such as stress or staff feeling down could be taken into consideration for further understanding the source of the issue.

  1. Record talent notes (achèvements, exceptions, concernes)

Lessons learned are a common activity in project management. This can be used to record talent notes about the staff achievements, their skills, and also any exceptions that could help in better management of talent in future projects.

Concluding thoughts
Staff burnout is quite a common problem and there is a growing body of literature on the subject. However, except for a few studies (e.g. Pinto, Dawood & Pinto, 2014); the literature on project staff burnout seems to be scarce.

Since project staff gets the opportunities to work on several different projects, it facilitates acquiring new skills and talent. As such people working on projects could potentially possess multiple talents and skills.

The question then is what happens if we don’t know how to use the talent available within the team. To put simply, it could potentially lead to project staff burnout. And to help reduce the impact we have proposed some strategies and action items.

References
Gkini, M. A., Hussain, K., Taylor, R., & Bewley, A. (2020). Burnout in psychodermatology: results from a European survey. British Journal of Dermatology.

Pinto, J. K., Dawood, S., & Pinto, M. B. (2014). Project management and burnout: Implications of the Demand–Control–Support model on project-based work. International Journal of Project Management, 32(4), 578-589.

Roy (2021- https://www.yourtango.com/experts/brent-roy/causes-burnout-avoid-work) identifies six causes of burn at work and they are: 1) work overload, 2) lack of control, 3) insufficient rewards, 4) breakdown of the community, 5) absence of fairness, and 6) conflicting values.

Silzer, R., & Dowell, B. E. (Eds.). (2009). Strategy-driven talent management: A leadership imperative (Vol. 28). John Wiley & Sons.

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Jiwat

Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.

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