A Quick Fix for Team Burnout

Written by:

Laura is a seasoned project manager who was recently hired to lead a large project critical to the success of a company. She was assigned a very competent and professional team, most of whom had been with the company for many years. They were smart and professional, but the problem was they were burned out. For them, this was another project in a long line of projects. They knew they would be facing demanding clients, grueling deadlines, and long hours. Their energy had waned over the years, and it was Laura’s job to rejuvenate it.

Laura knew many tricks of the trade. She knew the importance of getting to know her team-mates and finding out what makes each person tick. Over time, she would learn their individual desires and goals, and she would do her best to provide matching rewards that would help them get energized about the project. She would discover which rewards would be most meaningful to each person, such as who gets energized by challenging assignments or learning new skills or getting notoriety that may lead to a promotion. But that would take time, which she didn’t have – she had to get them going fast. Plus, she knew that this demanding project wouldn’t allow her to accommodate all of her team’s desires. Fortunately she knew how to boost the energy of the team in a much more efficient way.

Neuroscience has found that everyone has a basic “seeking” emotional system, which mediates their drive to achieve, attain, and experience the fruits of the world. Burnout is an emotional state in which the energy for “seeking” has waned, at least temporarily. It can be rejuvenated in the traditional way by providing compelling rewards that the person is motivated to attain, or the emotional system itself can be directly energized. Our conventional approach in business is the former, offering rewards that energize people to attain them. However, this can be challenging because over the course of each person’s lifetime, they’ve had unique beliefs and experiences that have caused them to be driven by significantly different rewards. Fortunately, we’re learning how to work more directly with emotional systems through body dynamics. Primal emotional systems can be energized directly through a variety of somatic, or body-based, methods including: 1) humor that prompts deep laughter, 2) physical play that includes spontaneity and creativity, 3) mindfulness techniques that prompt a present-centered awareness, and 4) music and dance that are designed around the motor impulses of the body.

Laura’s team needed emotional rejuvenation. She decided to use elements of all four of these somatic methods. She got the team interested in a mindfulness technique that they used for about fifteen minutes a few times a week. It was a form of a drumming circle and included elements of creativity and spontaneity, where people would lead a rhythm that others followed or added onto. It was fun, playful, centering and rhythmic. Such body-centered techniques energize a team’s primal emotional systems while at the same time relaxing the stress of their cognitive minds. The technique had a noticeable impact on the team after only a couple sessions – their energy level increased substantially. The four body-based methods are available in numerous forms and combinations, and they can be designed to meet the individuality of any team.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
  Related Articles


  1. Sharon Liu  January 1, 2013

    A comment about the drumming…Weren’t there people who were resistant to doing something so out-of-character from the task and industry at hand? If so, how was this handled?

  2. Jackie Barretta  January 1, 2013

    In this team of about 20 people there were a few people who were a bit reluctant to partake in drumming, but they decided to try it. Once they did, they were on board. However, you’re right that this can be a problem. I’m finding that if you label these techniques “stress reduction” or even “mindfulness”, they’re appealing to more conservative folks. And some techniques aren’t as far “out there” as drumming, such as breathing techniques.

    Also, I’m working with some large corporations that are adopting these techniques but making them optional. Then as the participants use them and talk about them with others, they’re spreading in the companies.

  3. Kevin Best  January 6, 2013


    I read your article and I thought it was interesting for you certainly described what I have experienced in my years of working in software. You had me interested up until you mentioned the drumming circle. The impracticality of having a drumming circle in a typical business setting even one that is as laid back as my current job setting lost me. In software development we need peace and quiet so that the
    Developers and Testers can focus on their User Stories or Defects. Maybe if the company had a space with sound proofing so that we could form a circle and bring in our drums this might work. However, there are cultural differences among team members that I have to consider. For example, I have team that is made up of a Indian Hindu, Pakistani Muslim, one Greek American, a Russian emigre, a Chinese emigre, Italian American, and older American from Sturbridge, MA. I have another team that has two Brits, two Indians, one Chinese American, and five engineers from Minsk, Belorus. As a Scrum Master, I need to be aware of cultural differences among the individuals so that I don’t offend or embarrass someone by my actions or suggestions. These individuals live pretty far from the office so they cannot spend time after work hours doing this. Is there another activity that one could do in an office setting that would not disrupt those around the team who also need peace and quiet to do their work?

  4. Jackie Barretta  January 6, 2013

    Kevin, I hear what you’re saying. In this particular team, they had a good space for the drumming. The company has a large room that is somewhat soundproof, plus it’s off the elevators in the lobby, so it’s away from the workspaces. I realize that’s somewhat uncommon.

    Another option would be some sort of mindfulness techniqe, such as meditation or breathing exercises. These are often brought into a company under the heading of “stress reduction” technique, but they also help with overall re-energization. With teams such as you describe, it would be important to bring in a technique that had no association with any sort of religion, such as Buddhism. Often people stay away from even calling it “meditation” and instead refer to it as a breathing technique. There are even biofeedback monitors that tell a person when they’ve reached that “zone” of rejuvenation.

    Other types of team activities can be good too, such as playing a sport or having a playful contest (e.g., pumpkin carving, putting, etc.). But I’m really partial to mindfulness techniqes because they can easily be done weekly (or more often), there’s no overhead, and they can be done without making noise. I can even put you in touch with some people who teach these sorts of techniques.

  5. Dillon  January 22, 2013

    I know this might sound like a stupid question, but did you use actual drums? With regards to your comment to Kevin, I would be interested in learning about other techniques (quite ones) that could be used. I would love to do something like this in our daily stand up (maybe not every day), but this is done in an open office, and weekly drumming may cause too much disruption to others.


  6. Jackie Barretta  January 22, 2013

    Dillon, in this particular case, yes, we used actual drums. The office setup made this easy to accommodate.

    I’ve seen breathing techniques work really well in a daily standup. Someone in the group leads the exercise, instructing when to breath in, hold, and breath out. It usually lasts for 3 to 4 breaths. Let me know if you want further info.


  7. Bob Vandenberg  February 10, 2013

    One thing that traditional Japanese companies do is to have exercise sessions at the start, end and during the workday. Noting strenuous, but more of like tai chi or light calethetics. Another things you can do is to set up a randomly timed “screen pause” in a team’s computers that require them to “step away” for a half hour or so and not work on things…and it is a smart app that avoids meeting times. Finally, a good old fire drill can be turned into a socializing event with a table of snacks and drinks…movitate them to turn a bad event into a good thing.

  8. Vic Williams  February 10, 2013

    From the horse’s mouth, sort of:
    I googled on ‘drum circle’ toyota

    On “the rhythmic journey toward higher individual and team performance”, the native indians along the Pacific coast of America have a long drumming history. I’m most familiar with coast salish drumming, but finding reading/written materials is tough. Westerners want ‘results’ and drumming is process.


Add a Comment