Last year I was coaching a dedicated executive, let’s call her Laura. She came to me because although she delivered great results and worked longer hours than anyone else, she felt unappreciated and afraid she might get pushed out of the business.

Perhaps you might know someone like her or perhaps you are like her: Laura was passionate about the mission of her organisation. She spent evenings thinking about work and replied to emails 24/7. Despite that, she felt ignored by the business. So why wasn’t she appreciated?

The answer comes in form of the Law of Exchange.

The balance of giving and receiving in an organisational system works like this: An employee gives their time, knowledge and experience. In return the organisation gives them a salary and hopefully a healthy working environment where they can learn new skills as well as enjoy being part of a strong team.

That is all obvious. Here is what we are not aware of:

An organisation, like a person, develops an awareness of whether the balance of exchange is fair.

So when people over-give and they compromise their health or personal relationships to get work done, the balance of exchange is off. Because how big of a salary increase is lack of sleep for a year worth? What can the organisation give to make up for not seeing your children or you losing your health? Of course no monetary reward can ever balance out those kinds of sacrifices.

So if you over-give, you will automatically be unappreciated and you will eventually be kicked out of the business. Because the company doesn’t know how to repay you for your anxiety, high level of stress or for getting divorced.

This of course happens unconsciously, but the impact is very real.

Below you will find two exercises to help with the over-giving challenge. One if you are the person who is habitually overgiving and a different one if you are leading a team or organisation that has people who are over-giving.

A. Exercise: If you are the person who is habitually over-giving

If you know that you are sacrificing too much and habitually over-giving it it time to stop and take responsibility. There are two steps for you to take.

Step one: Acknowledge that your employer is not responsible for your life, happiness or health.

Close your eyes and imagine your employer in front of you. You can visualise the company logo, your immediate boss or the top leader of your organisation. Then say:

“I have given more than is good for me. The balance of giving and receiving is out of whack and I am feeling the pain. I was waiting for you to make it better, but I forgot that you are just an organisation and you cannot be responsible for my health or my sanity. You are not my parents and I am not a child. What I need is my responsibility and I will take it fully. I will now start setting appropriate boundaries for my giving. Please be patient with me. It might take a little time before I get it right.”

Then take a deep breath.

Step two: Boundary setting

Now it is time to take an honest look at what you need to put in place to regain the balance of exchange. That also means setting some new boundaries for yourself. It might be that you chose not to check emails after 6:00pm, that you stop working on Sundays, that you start taking a lunch break where you go for a walk, or perhaps you start saying no to certain tasks.

Step three: Communicate the change

Then tell your colleagues that you will be making some changes to make your work-life balance more sustainable. It is important to manage your colleagues’ and boss’s expectations if you suddenly change your response time in e.g. how quickly you reply to emails. Ask for their support. Trust me – there will be many who will welcome your role modelling and want to do something similar.

Remember, if you don’t make these changes, you will end up in a downward spiral that will negatively impact your work, your health or your relationships – and likely all three.

B. Exercise: If you are leading a team or organisation that has over-givers

If you are a leader of a team or organisation that has one or more over-givers, it is time to address the issue. You might be tempted to squeeze the most out of your employees, but if the balance of exchange is not fairly even over time, there will be consequences to pay.

The obvious ones are increased days of sick leave, bad team morale, not to mention losing a valuable team member and potentially getting formal complaints about the work place or leadership. What is less known is that when an employee leaves on bad terms there will be a residue of the unresolved issue that will stick to the role and new people taking the role will over time often develop similar patterns to the dismissed over-giver.

So here is what I recommend:

Hold a private meeting with the over-giver and share the principles of the law of exchange with them. Ask them what they make of these principles. Help them see that it is time they start looking after themselves and set their own personal boundaries. Ask them what will help them keep these boundaries in place. Look at what they need to take responsibility for and what you as their employer are responsible for.

And remember, if there is a strong pattern of over-giving it will not go away after just one conversation. As a leader you will have to keep paying attention to this dynamic and do your part to keep the balance of exchange in check. Have regular one-to-ones where the two of you can review the boundaries put in place and discuss what else is needed.

You can turn it around

What happened to Laura? Thankfully I met her in time. After some coaching, she started setting boundaries and looking after her own personal needs. She acknowledged that her organisation is just her employer and it is not the business owner’s job to look after her health, sanity or marriage.

As she made these changes, she not only felt better about herself, she also got a big surprise. The business owner started trusting her more and praising her work. In fact, only a few months later the business owner announced his semi-retirement and asked Laura to start doing more of the high-level stuff.

Over to you. Have you experienced the over-giving dynamic play out in your work life? And how did you navigate it?

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