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It's Not Them, It's You

When it comes to burnout and people leaving their jobs they will talk about all kinds of reasons...

  • needed new challenges

  • looking for a unique environment

  • shorter commute

  • higher salary

  • remote work

Often times, they won't say, "Hi, Boss. I've accepted a new job. I was looking and am leaving because, despite the meaningful work I do here and the benefits and the salary and the great colleagues, our relationship is so bad that I really just can't go on like this. I wish you the best on all of your future endeavors."

When a person says they're leaving for more money, that is as bulletproof an excuse as calling in sick due to a stomach bug. I'm not suggesting that people don't leave work for more money or are not genuinely sick due to stomach issues. I'm saying that it is rare that anyone will argue about leaving for more money or not coming in because of yucky stomach. "They're offering you more than we can counter. I would totally do the same in your situation. Live long and prosper." "Stomach bug? Ugh. Say no more. Really. Nothing more at all." Most people don't really want to talk money or stomach issues. Bulletproof.

As a leader, it may be difficult to reconcile the notion of leading many different personalities. The task is complex and requires leaders to have broad impact and attend to details at the individual level. How can a leader do this and maintain both leadership and impact?

Things that get in the way:

  • it's just the policy

  • if I make an exception for you, I have to do it for everyone

  • if they like me, they'll do what I say

  • I need to be decisive and always have the answers

  • they can't know I don't know

Leadership is not easy. As a leader, people hold a lot of responsibility. This is part of the reason that when people leave their jobs, they are likely quitting their boss.

"Well, actually, there was this one time where a very specific situation occurred that did not follow this particular logic, thusly and therefore, the whole argument is moot."

I know none of YOU are thinking this, but you've probably got someone in mind. Here's a counter example.

After years of wandering through leadership styles and trying to figure out what worked, what was expected of me, unlearning bad habits, and deprogramming bad advice others gave me, I ended up being a decent supervisor.

At one point, I had worked with a colleague for a year or two as their direct supervisor. They had the opportunity to apply for a position in the same organization. The position would be a large jump in responsibility and compensation. Looking at it purely from a professional progression point of view, it was a no-brainer. As a peer human, the role had responsibilities that were difficult, meaningful, and sometimes quite public. Making that jump would require some careful consideration.

My colleague was able to progress through the hiring process to eventually be offered the position. We spoke about the process, the pros and cons of the role, the pros and cons of the new team she would be working with, how her spouse felt about the change, how she felt about the change; pretty much everything.

I didn't know it then, but I was coaching her. Not pointing toward a decision, but helping her unpack her concerns and perceptions. At one point it seemed that she had come to terms with everything about the role, the transition, the new expectations, all of it. But she still couldn't quite give a definitive "yes."

In conversation, we were able to discuss many concerns and resolve, or at least better understand, nearly all of them. It seemed that the decision was close so I asked a relatively simplistic question, "What is keeping you from accepting this job?" The response?

"This would be so much easier if you were just an a--hole."

"Oh. If that's what you need, I can bring that to the table."

She didn't really need me to morph into Captain Jerk. The struggle was, as I interpret it, leaving a good collegial relationship and going to into the unknown. I am happy to report that my colleague took the job and has thrived in the role. Due to the nature of the position, we were able to continue to work together and maintained a great relationship.

So, yes, there are many stories like this out there. But it doesn't dismiss the fact that many people leave their bosses and not their jobs. Just like the success of 5 billionaires without college degrees does not dismiss the fact that people with college degrees earn more than those without. Don't let an outlier define the whole data set.

What can be done? Assume the worst. Really.

When an employee starts to show signs of disengagement, burnout, apathy, or otherwise lower performance, assume it's you. Start there. Start the conversation with, "How may I support you to help you get back to your normally high standards?" When they say, "Oh, there's just lots of stuff going on," press them kindly. "What kind of stuff? Work? Home? Health?" Showing care and concern will only help. If they say, "Just stuff I need to work through," then (if your organization has this) remind them of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for support. Offer to buy them coaching services. Make sure they understand they've got support even if you're not the one giving it.

Back to the 'assume it's you' part. Think about this as helping to identify which levers to pull to help your employee succeed. What can you do? Engage, disengage, offer help, refer to help, ask about workload, ask about what they like about work; generally, listen to them as carefully as possible.

If your leadership style is, "I pay people to do a job, they just need to do it," I hope it works for you. If you run a "burn and churn" model, that's your call. For most leaders in most roles, success is directly tied to employee engagement, longevity, and productivity. This is why paying close attention to employee behavior (not just KPI's) is important.

If you're not a very engaging leader, why? Why do you choose that type of leadership? What is the value to you? What is the benefit to your direct reports. If you want to change behavior, the best time to start is today. You don't have to become Super Boss overnight to prevent employee burnout. Start easy, with your strengths.

One suggestion; if you're the type of person who has never needed a boss to give praise, that doesn't mean everyone operates in the same way. Instead of not giving praise because you don't need it, tell your people what you're doing and why. "When I was coming up, I enjoyed working for the sake of doing good work and improving. If the boss gave praise, that was fine, but it didn't matter much to me. I kind of naturally assume that most people are like this. How about you, do you prefer some recognition for good work or would you rather be left alone?"

This example is one of many. I choose this one because many leaders think they're doing well by doing what works for them. Leadership is complex. One size does not fit all. Adjustments have to be made to fit different personality types along the way. It is very unlikely that a leader will benefit from changing their entire leadership philosophy based on which 1 on 1 is scheduled that day. It is very likely that the 1 on 1 will be adjusted for how the direct report likes to engage and around which topics.

Sometimes just small adjustments is all it takes to engage employees. When you show care and concern for your direct reports, chances are high that your working relationship will be solid. When they move on to their next opportunity, you can be reasonably assured its for the opportunity.

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