top of page

Three Reasons Your Agile Culture is Resulting in Employee Burnout



Finding more than you're looking for


Surely, I'm not the only one. You go to Etsy (or your favorite store) looking for that special something for that special someone. Of course, you find it, but you find way more than you were looking for. Like that red Christmas t-shirt with the Golden Retriever decked in Christmas lights and a Santa hat that looks just like your dog. 🦮 Ok, maybe that's just me 💁🏼‍♀️, but you get the idea. That's exactly what happened to me this past week.


For example, I was preparing to be a guest teacher for a local University. The course was on project management with an emphasis on Agile. You already know (unless you're new here) that I talk about everything design thinking + leadership + innovation from the inside out. I fully disclose a limited experience with it. However, I am an avid learner and seek to understand all aspects of successful business operations. The topic of Agile often comes up, including the difference between Agile and Design Thinking. I wrote about the difference on LinkedIn a while ago titled "How Leaders Decide - Agile, Design Thinking or both?" That post was the launching pad for the students in the class I was teaching. As not to be unprepared (I was talking with students studying Agile), I decided I would read up some more on the ins and outs of Agile. That's when I found more than what I was looking for. 🤯


Intuitive hits or deja vu 🤷‍♀️


One of the many articles I read was titled "Agile vs. Design Thinking: key differences, similarities and why you don't have to choose between them." on a website building site called Hotjar. In particular, I kept getting intuitive hits - whoa, that's a source of burnout. On the other hand, perhaps it was more deja vu from my 20 years in the financial industry during the decades of merger mania and multiple market meltdowns. Burnout is a huge reason I left the industry and went on a journey of self-discovery that landed me here. I'm not sure whether it's intuition or deja vu, but I am sure it's a source of burnout and vital for leaders to know about. So let's jump in.


Language Matters (Reason #1)

Let's expose where the spark that starts the fire that has so many leaders' and employees' environments, minds, and lives ablaze (and not in a good way)—the spark - the Agile words of choice. As little kids, many were told by their parents when they came in crying from someone's hurtful words - sticks and stones may break my bones, but your words will never hurt me. Well, we know that is not true. Psychiatrists make a pretty good living from the fallacy of it. But, the real truth has been espoused since the dawn of time in ancient scriptures, and in today's leading voices, we have been warned. The power of life and death is in the tongue. Robin Sharma, the author of The Leader Who Had No Title, puts the concept this way.

Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.

While we should not require evidence beyond someone's kind word's effect in turning our day around, I will offer a bit more. Author and Researcher, Dr. Masaru Emoto Water Experiments (click to see a 5-minute video of the change in water crystals by the power of words). Humans are no different. We are made up of 60% water, after all. But let's conduct our own experiment. Take a moment before reading further. Relax as best as possible in the chair you are sitting in. unfurrow your brow, relax your jaw and shoulders, place your hand's palm up in your lap, and breathe into your belly for a few deep breaths. Take note of how your body feels. Can you feel (even the tiniest bit) the relaxation you just created? If not, repeat the previous before reading on.


Now let's turn our attention to a list of words you can find in any Agile word cloud and probably are all a buzz in your company if you find yourself reading this post.


Agile, continuous improvement, fast, test, backlog, cycle, control, quick.

And because our brains are equipped with cognitive shortcuts that chunk words together, our minds are likely also thinking about words we have associated with these words in the past. The dictionary offers so many of these it has its own category. Synonyms. Some synonyms for the above list include swift, neverending 😩, breakneck (🤕 ouch, that one hurts), being evaluated (no childhood trauma comes up there 🥴), falling behind 🫠, stuck 😤, and restrained. Now check in with your body...did you feel it? There's only one likely reason you didn't. You were hijacked by your ego mind and went down another spiral. Either a wave of personal experience providing further evidence that Agile is causing burnout. Or your ego may have chosen the argumentative route, but Karen, you selected all the negative words. There are many positive words associated with Agile. And to your ego, I would say you're right. Doesn't that feel good? 😊 My point exactly. The words we choose with Agile or otherwise profoundly affect how employees feel. And I don't have to tell you, burnout is all the feels. And not the good ones. When we get sucked into the thoughts of our mind, like what you may have just experienced, our body reacts even if we fail to notice it. From the clinching of our jaw to increased tension in our shoulders to the chemicals flowing through every cell in our body. Stress effects every area of the body. And much of the Agile terminology is fueling that stress response. But there's more.


The merry-go-round effect (Reason #2)

Remember those beautiful carousels at the fair when you were a kid? They were adorned with chariots, horses, and thrones made for your little king or queen butt to sit merrily as it went causally around in circles so that you could take in the majesty of your kingdom. Precisely, the next stop for a caramel apple, elephant ear, or other greasy delicacies your unconditioned child's stomach desired. Now imagine if the ride's goal was to speed up with each revolution around the wheel. 🤢 That's a stated goal with Agile.


Here are a few quotes from the Hotjar article mentioned above that will not be new to your ears. But I hope they will bring you a new perception of Agile's effect on employee burnout.


Agile products are built early and often. (Anyone else think of the movie Ground Hog Day? I think I just aged myself. 🤦🏼‍♀️)
A project management method with a speedy iterative 🎠 approach
constantly testing 🏃🏾‍♂️🏃🏽🏃🏼‍♀️
constantly balancing 🤹🏽‍♀️ team efforts

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking - no wonder there's a great resignation and everyone is quiet quitting. Everyone wants off the merry-go-round. Even if they get that caramel apple (employee perk) at the end of the ride, they can't stomach the thought of climbing back on the fake horse to do it again at a faster pace. But there is one more example from childhood (and the Hotjar article) that I want to connect with this storybook lesson of how Agile Methodology and the culture created around it is causing employee burnout.


Building a bridge when you need a boat (Reason #3)

The last quote from the Hotjar article that I want to draw your attention to is this one:

With agile, the workflow is build first, then measure, then learn.

While Agile is applauded as an effective means of increased efficiency and productivity, I must say in reading that line that my intuition was going, "are you kidding me?" There are so many cliches, and stories passed down thru the ages because of their simplicity and truth that they say the exact opposite. Such as.