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Sacrifice Syndrome: The Cycle Of Wellbeing Deprivation

Sacrifice Syndrome. The cycle whereby leaders are caught in a corrosive pattern of workplace behaviours; working late, skipping lunch, catching up on weekends….the list is endless. The result? Dissonant leadership, bleeding into the rest of your organisation causing stress and burnout.

When leaders are caught in a cycle of sacrifice, unable to manage stress and remain resilient, the ripples impact upon corporate culture and with it, everyone in the organisation. Mistakes are made and performance suffers (Tan,1998). As McKee (2008) suggests, it is a myth that ‘Great leaders thrive on constant pressure’. It may well be a VUCA world but as the much quoted Yerkes-Dodson model suggests, there is a point where every human being will eventually tip over from peak performance into stress. It is this stress that will impact upon the rest of the organisation, leaking into working practices resulting in sacrifice syndrome (McKee).

Dissonant Leadership

Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organisational Behaviour describes this as ‘dissonant’ leadership, which, if uncorrected will result in high levels of absenteeism, reduced employed engagement, a decrease in motivation and productivity, over time resulting in an exodus of employees. The old adage that ‘people leave bad managers not bad organisations’ it seems, may be true. Stating that ‘smart isn’t enough’ McKee and colleagues (2008) outline an alternative to the dissonant leader.

Resonant Leadership

Resonant leaders have awareness and are able to self regulate, qualities that Cresswell (2007) found increased with mindfulness training. When interviewed by Harvard Business Review, Bill George, Harvard Business School professor stated (Silverthorne, 2010, p.2) “Leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others, and motivating them towards shared goals”. George goes on to cite the post-Enron examples of firms that focus upon financial remuneration and power, fostering a blame culture being the antitheses of this. This style of leadership is a contagion and will filter into every pore of your organisation. The flip side of sacrifice is renewal and that’s how to get the balance right. The Renewal Cycle recognizes stressful sacrifice and addresses it.

Ending Sacrifice
In our leadership programes we’re often asked the most effective way to stop sacrifice syndrome in it’s tracks. We focus on three main areas of renewal;


Find a way to regularly decompress and de – stress. Whether it’s running, walking, listening to music or mindfulness, make sure you have a go to stress buster. Don’t wait until you feel overwhelmed, keep your resilience topped up by decompressing on a regular basis. The practice of mindfulness gives you the opportunity to really notice what is going on for you, giving you the choice to respond rather simply react with a knee jerk.

Take a step back from your daily grind and get into the habit of metacognition, or thinking about your thinking. Mindfulness helps you to step outside of your habitual thinking and give you a fresh perspective moving you out of the stimulus habitual response cycle, fostering greater clarity and effective decision making. The good news? Not only is renewal the antidote to sacrifice, it’s equally as contagious. What you model as a leader will be followed and embraced by others in your organisation.


Take a look at your day and audit your wellbeing. Do you build time in for the following;


Everyone is different but 6 – 8 hours is the benchmark. Are you getting enough?


Do you have a balanced healthy diet? Making sure you get at least 5 fruit and vegetable portions a day as a minimum is key to maintaining your energy levels. Reduce caffeinated drinks. Limit your alcohol consumption and steer clear of energy drinks designed to keep you awake.

Regular exercise.

Whatever you choose, it should be for at least 30 minutes a day, get your heart pumping and skin glowing. Managing your energy will provide huge dividends and leave you feeling more in control and less likely to fall back upon old habits like grabbing the nearest takeaway to refuel on the hoof.


Switch off. Literally. Identify the processes that feed the burnout of dissonant leadership and stop them in their tracks. One such example is the thorny issue of email and being constantly on call 24/7. Companies such as VW are turning off their servers to prevent employees emailing throughout the night in recognition that such practices will render employees less efficient, not more. Processes to consider are; work – life balance, lunch breaks and staying late at work in your organisation. Are these fuelling burnout & sacrifice syndrome? Ask yourself which activities renew and energise your people and which drain them then get started on changing culture.

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