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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Me First!

Often in coaching, the clients I work with (particularly those who have worked for the same organisation for a long time) tell me of the evolution of the relationship between them and their organisation. It's true in many many cases, that the way they feel about their organisation has changed over time and often it's a source of challenge and unrest, as they sense the shifting sands within themselves.

It's not uncommon to hear people talk about how they started off in a place where they poured themselves into their work. Relentless graft, long hours, huge commitment, perhaps sacrificing their hobbies, family time, in some cases even their physical or mental health, in order to give as much as they can to their work. The motivation for this differs, but often it's about getting ahead, believing that by showing that level of dedication and delivering the quality of work that's possible through that type of graft, they'll achieve some goals that they've set out in their head. Promotion to a certain level, passing a salary mark, gaining a specific role, attaining a position of leadership, making partner, etc.

Sometimes this behaviour is driven by loyalty to a boss who pushes and drives them. At times, people see things in us that we don't see in ourselves and they push us to new heights, to achieve or deliver things that we didn't know we were capable of. This can be an amazing thing, especially when it's rooted only in that leader's desire to see us thrive.

But somewhere down the road, in all of these stories, a change happens. For some people it's in their life and circumstances. They start a family, a relative falls ill, perhaps they lose someone close to them. This jolt in their lives, causes a re-evaluation of priorities. For others, the relentless pace causes their health to fail them. Physical or mental breakdown occurs and they're rendered unable to go on at the pace they were operating at. In their process of resting and recuperating and trying to regain their health, they start to question what it was all for. Why did they drive themselves half to death for an organisation which seemed happy to let them do so? These are all significant, life-changing events and it's to be expected that they shake us to our core and become a catalyst for reappraisal.

For more, however, I see that the change comes because of a loss of faith in the institution and both the written and unwritten contracts that exists between individual and organisation. Sometimes they realise that all of the work they were doing, in pursuit of either the explicit or implicit rewards of the organisation, was a bargain built on lies. Promised or implied promotions never materialise. Pay rises don't happen, or are below inflation because the organisation 'can't afford it' (often as they book gargantuan profits). Terms and conditions of employment are changed, once they're already in the door. Erosion of pensions and benefits take place and they feel trapped and taken advantage of. Long-tenured and hard working people find that either they or people close to them have the rug pulled out from underneath them, with another round of redundancy, and they realise that regardless of the effort they put in and the contribution they make, they're expendable and the organisation will jettison them in a heartbeat, in order to achieve it's own goals.

And sometimes it's down to their individual relationship with a leader. Countless times, I've seen a leader hold onto a talented and hard-working individual, rather than promoting them or helping them find opportunities elsewhere, because it benefits that leader to have someone with their work-rate and capability in their team, so that the leader can achieve their own aims. These leaders often manipulate, preventing the individual from leaving or seeking new opportunities that might be more lucrative or rewarding, by framing a vague future opportunity which might be on it's way. 'That looks like a great opportunity but there's something coming in this team I think you'd be great for. I can't say too much about it now but there's going to be a restructure in x months'. Out of loyalty, people often forego the chance to move teams or leave the organisation for greener pastures, only to find that the opportunity which was used as the bait to keep them, never materialises. Even worse, I've seen a lot of occasions where the individual stays, only for the leader who they've hitched their wagon to, to move on to a new opportunity of their own, leaving the person feeling betrayed and bitter, with their own opportunity now long gone.

In many teams and organisations, people like to frame the environment as being a family, but we don't (I hope!) treat people in our families like this. We don't discard a brother or sister just so that we can meet our profit projection. We don't promise our children things that we have no intention of delivering against, in order to allow us to keep them around and use them to create our own opportunities. That analogy is flawed and dangerous and if you refer to your team or business as a family, you'd better set and maintain the highest standards around how you treat your people, otherwise it falls apart very quickly.

So what happens when our people do check out? Well we've all heard of quiet quitting, where people don't make a fuss, but they stop giving the extra discretionary effort which is the lifeblood of many organisations. They recognise that extra effort does not lead to extra rewards and so they put that energy into other parts of their lives. And this can have a dramatic impact on an organisation's productivity and effectiveness.

So what does this mean for leaders? Well it starts with honesty. Too often, these problems come because leaders are unable or frightened to give honest feedback which can help keep relationships on an even keel and allow individuals to accurately assess where they stand. This gives your people the information they need to make informed decisions about their careers and in most cases, that's all that people want.

And there's something about trusting yourself to identify and develop talent. If you have someone awesome working for you, it MIGHT be a fluke, but it might also be the case that you're enabled them to be successful by developing and supporting and challenging them. And if the latter is the case, you need to trust that if that individual is given the opportunity to fly the nest and move onto bigger things, you have the capability to find someone else and nurture them, so that they, too can become the best version of themselves. And the more you do that, the better you get at doing it AND the better your reputation as a leader becomes, because you become an enabler of others. People love working for leaders who help them grow and develop and so suddenly the process of attracting talent (internally at least) starts to take care of itself!

Nobody wants people working for them or with them who are checked out and whose relationship with and respect for the organisation is fractured, but we know it happens And while there are many reasons why this occurs, some of which are out of your control as a leader, you need to take accountability for the way in which you treat your people, in order to do everything you can to prevent that from happening. Be honest, give regular feedback and work to develop your people. If you do only these things, they'll be much better off and you'll see the benefits!

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