Hidden Messages

“We knew she wasn’t happy.”

When I talk to managers who are losing an employee, they are rarely blindsided and usually say this something like that. But when I ask how they knew the employee was unhappy, few give details. They’ll respond with “she seemed checked out” or “she hasn't been as motivated lately."

But what does that actually look like?

There are hidden messages in the interactions we have with employees every day and if managers aren’t tuned in they miss those messages. My article, For Goodness’ Sake, Talk to Your People, has ideas for improving communication between managers and their employees. But here’s the thing – during those conversations, you actually have to listen and pay attention. That takes a level of emotional intelligence that many leaders forsake because they are results-focused instead of people-focused.

So what does “unhappy” look like? Here’s an example of the hidden messages Sarah’s manager could have noticed before she resigned:

  • Sarah used to voluntarily answer emails in the evening after her kids were asleep. Now, she waits until the next business day, and unless the email is high priority, waits until mid-morning to respond. Work life balance aside, the sudden change in behavior, coupled with not responding first thing in the morning, are the red flags.
  • During team meetings, Sarah was always the one to share her opinions or offer up new ideas. Over the past few months, she’s talked less and less. She’s always smiling and nodding, though, so that to the untrained eye she comes across as engaged.
  • She's started only talking about projects or tasks in 1:1 meetings, whereas before she would share stories about her kids or talk about development goals. When asked how she is doing or if she needs anything, Sarah responds “I’m good.” 1:1 meetings always end early now. Be concerned when an employee stops engaging! To simply cover the basics does not mean the meeting went well. And never settle for “I’m good” from an employee that previously used to offer up their own ideas and opinions!
  • Sarah has stopped having “drive-by” conversations with her manager, something she used to do to make sure they were connecting daily. She doesn’t pop over to ask a question, choosing instead to email, even though they sit 100 feet apart.  

For a manager who’s focused on his to do list, instead of his people, these are small signs that go unnoticed. Overall, Sarah is talking less, and when she resigns, that’s what will make her manager say “I could tell she was unhappy.”

But wait!

Sarah could have been saved!

By watching for the hidden messages, Sarah’s manager could have used 1:1 meetings to understand her feelings (I recommend Stay Interviews) and changed his leadership style to meet her needs (Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership is the best I’ve come across). Understandably these actions might not have been enough to save her, but by watching and listening at least he tried.

And isn’t that the most important part?