Relationship struggles matter.
Do you ever “phone it in” in your relationships?
I’m pretty sure there’s an annual conference somewhere in Mexico each summer where marketing executives from the greeting card, candy, and flower companies get together. I imagine they have spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations all laying out this year’s plot to get a bigger and better share of the husband/father/wife/mother/son/daughter’s wallet each year. I have this vision most often in early February. Right before Valentine’s Day.
I know many couples agree not to celebrate these so-called “Hallmark” holidays. That sounds like a great plan on paper. After all, I love and adore my wife and kid every day of the year. So why make a big deal about it? Why drop a bunch of money on flowers that will be dead and on candy we’ll regret eating a week later?
Then I catch myself. Really? Is it too much to ask to take one day of the year and celebrate the most important relationships in my life? What kind of husband or father just gives the middle finger to his wife and kid on Valentine’s Day? This is the point where I imagine that the marketing executives in Mexico vigorously nod in agreement.
Then I do what every self-respecting husband or father does. I take the middle road. I phone it in.
For those of you born after 1980, “phoning it in” means calling someone when the appropriate response would be a face-to-face conversation. Today that’s “texting it in” or “tweeting it in” – but you get the idea. Phoning it in means performing something without enthusiasm. Doing the minimum amount required to say you did it. In a relationship, “phoning it in” is a signal that you’re taking things for granted.
The difference between “settling in” and “settling”
Not every second of every relationship is going to be a “highlight reel” moment. One of the best things about a long-term relationship with someone is there is less pressure to always be “on.” You can settle in. You feel safe and comfortable just being you and (thankfully) you don’t always have to be your best. However, there is a risk of getting too comfortable. You can take things for granted. Eventually you may forget all the things you appreciated at the beginning of the relationship, causing the connection to slowly slip away. In the worst cases people may feel like they “settled” in the beginning. This is when they start treating their partner with contempt.
There’s a guy – Joel Gottman – who can watch a couple talk for 15 minutes and tell you with about 85% accuracy who will still be married 6 years later. You know what he looks for? Signs of contempt. Nothing destroys a relationship with more certainty than contempt.
Now I’m not a marriage counselor and I’m not giving advice on marriage relationship struggles. But this dynamic plays out in all our relationships. At home and especially at work. We start a new job. Everything is fresh and exciting. Connections are strong. Energy is high. But it’s a lot of work. Eventually things settle in and get more normal. Natural. It’s not as exciting and unpredictable as when everything was new – but it’s also a lot more comfortable. Now comes the hard part: How do you know if you are losing the connection?
Do you remember Vanderbilt University Business Professor Tim Gardner’s study on behaviors that predict turnover? (Read our blog post on the 5 Performance Issues that signal turnover intention here.) You probably won’t be surprised that one of the key categories of behavior that predict whether someone is about to quit their job (and leave their relationship with their boss) is relationship struggles.
Here are 4 Relationship Struggles that Signal an Employee is Ready for a Change
One: Less interested in pleasing their manager
This is the “phoning it in” behavior, and it plays out more often than any of us realize. A member of your team feels “stuck.” They don’t enjoy what they do anymore. Maybe they’ve been in the same position for a few years now. The days run together. They’re in their own, real-life version of “The Office.”
They’re unhappy but they’ve also got a pretty good gig. It’s hard to leave when you know you can do the bare minimum and still keep your job. (Stay tuned for a discussion on this in a future blog post: What are you doing to make your employees feel like they don’t have to do as much?)
Employees who feel this way sometimes daydream about getting let go. There’s a glimmer of freedom on the other side. It’s exciting to imagine doing something new or working with someone different. Whether that’s reality or not doesn’t matter. Our lives are what we imagine them to be. Fire them or don’t fire them. One thing’s for sure, they’re not worried about it.
If you have an employee that is visibly less interested in staying in your good graces, you have a problem. It could be that the pastures are greener elsewhere. But most of the time that longing isn’t really about a new company or a new team. It’s about a lack of connection and excitement about what they’re doing now. You really don’t want to lose this person. She wants more and she’s not getting it here. You can either identify ways for her to learn and grow here. Or watch her attitude and performance slide right up until she tells you she’s found a better job.
Two: A negative change in attitude
Consider how you felt the last time you started a new job. Excited. Anxious. Here lies a fresh opportunity to be whoever you want to be. We love that don’t we? Opportunities to redefine ourselves. Of course, these opportunities can also come with a bit of nerves. We want our new coworkers to like us. We want to feel a part. In a word, we care.
Now jump back to the last time you wanted to quit a job. You weren’t worried about impressing anyone. In fact, by this time, you probably have a coworker or two that you’d just as soon never talk to again.
From daily processes to company culture, people that are invested in your organization get excited about opportunities to make things better. Those who have one foot out the door see the down side of everything. And misery loves company.
Three: Expressed dissatisfaction with their supervisor
This one is different than the first signal on this list. Your teammate moves from “phoning it in” to outright contempt. Not only do they not care about impressing you, but now they’ve concluded you are the problem. They’ve decided and said (to their teammates and perhaps even to you) one of two things:
- They don’t like you.
- You’re doing a bad job.
You’ve probably felt this way about a manager. We all have. But, since you wanted to keep your job, you kept it to yourself. If you start hearing complaints like these, your coworker is at the end of their rope. Expressed dissatisfaction is a tell-tale sign your team member is on the way out.
This is an urgent situation. Check out our recommendations for corrective action below.
Four: Shown less interest in working with customers
Have you ever walked up on a conversation one of your team members was having with a client and thought, “Oh no. That’s not good.”
We have to keep our customers happy. I’m no math genius, but this equation I understand: No customers = no business.
But I don’t subscribe to the belief that “the customer is always right.” Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a business opportunity to stand up for a valuable teammate. That’s not the situation I’m talking about here.
Instead, I’m talking about a member of your team who seems to have stopped caring about the customer experience. Their contempt for the company or their manager has turned into contempt for the customer. This is unacceptable. It’s also a tell-tale sign of a larger problem – they just don’t care anymore.
What to do when you’ve noticed one of these 4 relationship struggles
You’ve spotted one or more of the relationship struggles. What do you do now? First, acknowledge that this person might be considering a move. Then ask yourself, do you want them to stay?
Did you answer yes? Then you have some work to do. Start by sitting down with them and having a real conversation. This shouldn’t feel like a performance review. Don’t just squeeze it in. Consider changing the scenery – maybe take them out to lunch. Remember power distance. Any time you are discussing something like a change in attitude or performance, you immediately raise the idea “am I about to get fired?” Even if your employee has daydreamed about their next job, very few people look forward to getting fired. People are often much more willing to speak freely when you step outside of the environment where you are clearly in a higher power position.
By the way, one of the relationship struggles is feedback about your performance. Practice being vulnerable and asking for honest feedback about how you’re doing. Make sure they know you want their honest opinion.
Next step, listen. What’s going on with them? Personally? Professionally? Dealing with any frustrations at the office? Anything I can do about it? What can I do better as your boss? Do you enjoy the work you’re doing?
Ask these (I’ll be honest) not-so-simple questions. And then sit back. Really listen. Try to understand. Share experiences where you may have felt the same way.
Not only does a scenario like this work wonders toward giving you a better perspective of what your team members experience at work. It’s also a relationship game-changer. Nothing replaces one-on-one time. Nothing makes a person feel more important or valued.
What if you answered no?
If you answered no, my advice is the same. Have a conversation. Ask them the same questions. Except this time, when they say they are unhappy in their current situation, acknowledge that it might not be the best fit. Offer to help them make a change.
Don’t shy away from the subject. Again, acknowledge power distance. They may not want to talk about it or fear you will push them out. Help them understand that you want what’s best for them long-term. That might be outside the organization and that’s OK. Even if you mutually decide that their future is outside the company, you’ll often be surprised at the performance improvement you see while they are looking for that greener pasture.
As a leader your goal is to keep a strong connection in your long-term relationships. Approachability is all about growing and maintaining strong connections with others. (Our leadership model is called the “Connection Model” for a reason!) So make sure you are constantly looking out for these signs of relationship struggles. When you spot them, do what you can to connect.
Relationships are hard. Especially when we’ve all got work to do. But take the time to look at how your people interact with each other. Notice how they interact with you. Hopefully, you feel good about your organization’s culture and the people you have creating it. But don’t be surprised if one of these 4 relationship struggles show up. Recognize it. Then dive in. Your team will thank you.