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?

The Fire Pit Effect

Your friends are having an outdoor party in December. It’s cold, so you stand as close to their fire pit as possible, rubbing your hands together for warmth. When the wind switches direction and the smoke gets in your face, you switch sides, still seeking the heat. But eventually, you leave because it’s too cold.

If you aren’t already thinking about what your team’s 2017 goals are and brainstorming objectives with them, you’re getting ready to enter what I call the “fire pit effect.”

Think about it.

Without goals, employees are left out in the cold, trying to figure out how to stay warm (aka: What is the meaning of my work? What does success look like? How are you measuring my performance?). They get as close to the fire as they can (your expectations), try to figure out how to stay warm on their own, change direction when they think it’s time, and then eventually give up. That giving up can look like leaving the company, or worse, decreased engagement and loss of motivation.

It’s the fire pit effect and I see it all the time. It sounds like:

 “This new project is confusing and no one understands their role in it or how it’s supposed to make the company money. We’re all working late trying to get it figured out, but none of us knows what to do.”

“We dropped the ball in communicating this change because no one anticipated it coming. Get the group together for an emergency meeting.”

“We didn’t make revenue for last quarter. Stop everything you’re working on and only focus on making money next quarter.”

When there are not clear goals, the team is overworked because they’re unable to prioritize. The boss is reactive and throws more work on everyone’s plates, always at the last minute. Employees don’t understand how they fit in to the company strategy, and since leaders don’t understand what other departments are working on, work happens in silos.

What does success look like?

No one knows. So employees keep asking and searching and trying to warm their hands by seeking direction from a boss that hasn’t set goals and therefore can’t clearly articulate the path. Then eventually, they stop asking and just do what they think is best, with or without telling anyone. Then, they leave. 

Creating a Leadership Bootcamp

If you're in Organizational Development like me, you work with leaders who have a variety of needs. The most common needs I see are:

  • New to role and have no idea how to manage people
  • Feeling devalued because they're not being developed
  • Aren't succeeding at a managerial role and need an intervention

One way to help these managers is by creating a Leadership Bootcamp. The goal? Inspire managers to take their skills to the next level. 

I'm leading one next week. Here's the agenda: 

  1. Each executive (we have 7) is going to guest speak for 15 minutes. Can you think of a better way to show a leader that they're valued than by giving them face time with the executives? It's also a way to inspire those that are struggling. 
  2. Decoding Leadership Styles - in my experience, switching leadership styles depending on the needs of the employee is a critical skill that most leaders don't have. 
  3. Giving Feedback - another critical skill that most leaders aren't doing. They're either just saying "good job" (see my post about giving positive feedback) or don't give effective constructive feedback that actually changes behaviors. 
  4. How not to get in trouble with HR - how many leaders do you have who know all the HR "stuff" they have to deal with? Let's teach them how to put an employee on leave or what to do when they need to put someone on a performance improvement plan.
  5. 360 Feedback Survey - I created an in-house 360 that leaders must take as part of the bootcamp. At the end of bootcamp they look at the results and start action planning. Then, I follow up with 1:1 coaching. 

Leaders need to be developed. What are you doing?