CEO Life

CEOs Can Become Afflicted With ‘Boreout’ Too

I held jobs early in my career that look nothing like my work today. Technical internships that involved coding as well as roles in R&D, software, and hardware engineering. A far cry from the executive leadership positions I’ve held since.

Those early roles were great for knowledge building but left me unfulfilled—something was missing. I didn’t know why then—but I understand now. How did I come to this realization? By using a framework that functions on both an organizational and individual level: thinking outside-in and inside-out.

What does that mean?

Years ago, when I was a new employee at AT&T, it was a process of accidental discovery. The reason the technical jobs didn’t fulfill me completely is that they couldn’t answer the bigger questions emerging in my mind. As a network engineer, strategic context wasn’t part of my official job description. But I wanted to know why my role was important and how it related to everything else. What did it mean for my department? For the whole company? For our customers and shareholders?

Without realizing it, I had begun to think outside-in: I had a deep desire to see and influence the bigger picture, specifically as it related to how we were viewed and how we performed as a business, and what each small, individual action I took meant ultimately.

Also, without realizing it, I was thinking inside-out: Concerned about the customers and their growth as I went about my daily routine and regularly asking myself what I wanted out of my job and what mattered to me.

It’s clear why these frameworks might be beneficial to a company at large. But it’s also clear to me now, having lived the experience, why this form of thinking can boost leadership potential in executives and managers.

I used to call how I was feeling “boredom burnout.” Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who’s helped to drive thinking on leadership topics, has popularized the term “boreout” to describe the feeling. While burnout means being stressed, unsatisfied and/or overworked, boreout is the opposite. In Grant’s words, it’s the “emotional deadening you feel when you’re understimulated.”

In my way of thinking about it, boredom burnout often comes when work is disconnected from a purpose. Futility is an engagement killer. Other reasons for a disconnect can be when talents or values are not matched well in a role.

Boreout is a less-discussed form of leadership malaise because it may not look like a crisis. From an individual’s perspective, it can even represent a work hazard of sorts that heavily detracts from one’s ability to perform at their best. Most certainly, it limits people from working to their full potential, or their organization’s. Unfortunately, it can linger for years unaddressed. And it’s equally problematic, both from a professional and personal standpoint.

Thinking both outside-in and inside-out can address boreout as effectively as any other framework I can think of. That’s because both points of view lead to obvious questions.

For outside-in, it means asking who is in your circle of influence? As a leader, how are you seeking new perspectives from multiple sources? What kind of context about the purpose of what you are doing day-in, day-out, motivates you to launch with enthusiasm into your workday?

For inside-out, it means asking yourself about your values. What are your beliefs? What is important to you fundamentally? How is the direction of your career steering you toward—or away—from those ideals?

The answers to these questions don’t solve boreout on their own. They help define the conditions necessary for helping to climb out of it or even altogether avoid it. They aren’t just applicable to you as a leader or future leader who might be suffering from boreout, but to other leaders in your organization or in your professional circle who seem like they might not be fully engaged.

Thinking outside-in and inside-out are excellent ways to advocate for your organization’s customers and stakeholders internally, while promoting the company externally. They are a framework I’ve seen deliver consistently excellent results for decades. Also crucial: They are flexible enough to work for an individual leader. And what’s more, they can be utilized long before you reach the critical stage represented by boreout.

Like many people on the cusp of or now in leadership roles, I was not fully aware early on what clues my actions or questions were indicating. But I’m glad that, intentionally or not, I’ve long since continually asked myself the right sort of questions to lead me down a productive, prosperous path. And that’s a reminder that it’s never too early or too late to think outside-in and inside-out, no matter where you are in your career and life journey.

Anne Chow

Anne Chow is lead director on FranklinCovey’s Board of Directors, a director of 3M and author of "Lead Bigger: The Transformative Power of Inclusion," due out in September. Chow, former CEO of AT&T Business, was twice featured as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business and was co-author of the best-selling book, “The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias."

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Anne Chow

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