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Are you listening to the canary trying to warn you?

What is mitigation fatigue, and why does it matter for leaders and business? Learn how understanding this phenomenon helps you exercise choice, connection and competence.

5 min read


Are you listening to the canary trying to warn you?

Susan Fowler

A frightful admission: When President Donald Trump was airlifted to the hospital to receive treatment for the coronavirus, the better part of me hoped his illness would be a transformative experience for him that could benefit us all. But another part of me (that’s hard to admit exists), thought his hospitalization was a fine irony.

Then I heard the canary. Historically, coal miners used canaries to warn them of life-threatening toxic gasses in the mines. It might be an overused cliche, but the metaphor is famous because the canaries gave their life to warn miners of impending danger. More than ever, we need to pay attention to the canary warning us when our psychological well-being and vitality are at risk.

My canary must have been German, for its warning came as the perfect word describing the danger befalling me — schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune (schaden means “harm” and freude means “delight”). I became aware that my response to Trump’s diagnosis was contrary to everything I’ve dedicated my career to studying and sharing — the science of thriving.

I was reminded that taking pleasure from someone else’s pain isn’t natural. Just the opposite. Our human nature is to seek genuine connection to others and contribute to the welfare of the whole.

The delight I felt over Trump’s illness was an imposter that could never equate to intrinsic joy. Turns out, I was also ignoring my values for compassion and empathy. My canary alerted me that schadenfreude was eroding my psychological need for connection. When one of our three psychological needs — for choice, connection and competence — is compromised, our well-being is in peril; our vitality is diminished.

You have a canary that can alert you when your psychological well-being is threatened if you pay attention to the signals. The biggest “tell” is your emotional reaction to what you’re experiencing. If your need for choice, connection and competence is supported, you thrive. If your psychological needs are eroded, you languish. The erosion of your psychological needs jeopardizes your ability to generate the vitality you need for meeting everyday challenges, let alone the epic challenges we all face today.

Mitigation fatigue” is a prime example of a canary signaling that your psychological needs are out of whack. If you feel exhausted when wearing a mask because you consider it an affront to your personal rights, your choice is being eroded. If you feel lonely when social distancing keeps you from interacting with friends and family, your connection is being eroded. If you feel frustrated when messaging about how to handle COVID-19 is confusing, your competence is being eroded.   

The first step to overcoming mitigation fatigue is to notice how the exhaustion, loneliness and frustration you feel result from the daily assaults to your psychological needs. Your awareness of the threat empowers you to overcome mitigation fatigue by creating choice, connection and competence. 

For example, maybe you decide to accept personal responsibility for donning a mask in public and discover that contributing to the welfare of the whole feels as good, or maybe even better, than exercising your personal right not to wear a mask. Techniques for creating choice, connection, and competence will improve your physical, mental and emotional health.

Is your psychological well-being endangered? 7 warning signs

Human beings long to feel a deep sense of peace, belonging, growth and inherent joy. But you sabotage and endanger your well-being when you feel:

  1. Agitation that disrupts peace
  2. Fear that inhibits your ability to deal with challenge and change
  3. Pride from belonging to a tribe that rejects and diminishes others based on factors beyond their control, such as the color of their skin or sexual orientation
  4. Overwhelmed to the point of apathy
  5. Pressure to win, live up to expectations or protect an image
  6. Self-righteous indignation that makes you right and someone else wrong despite evidence to the contrary
  7. Self-absorption that leaves you devoid of empathy and compassion for others

As a leader, notice how seeking power and prestige makes you feel. If you manipulate people by stoking schadenfreude, fear, anger, prejudice and tribalism, your canary is probably gasping its last breath — your psychological needs aren’t just eroded, they’re destroyed. 

That’s not healthy for you, and it’s bad news for those you lead, too. Your toxic energy makes it almost impossible for the people you lead to thrive.

Try a different approach to leadership. Be transparent and share information that people need for making valid choices. Demonstrate compassion and empathy to create genuine connection. And provide clear strategies so people can develop the competence they need to meet the challenges they face. You’ll generate the vitality you and others need for overcoming mitigation fatigue. Hear that? It’s your canary singing.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information, visit

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