When your best employee is ready to cross the line @National Employee Engagement Conference 2020

Picture your best employee standing outside, alone.

At his feet is a blue line running perpendicular to the direction he is facing.

His toes are touching the line.

The side of the line where he is standing is his current reality.

The other side is everything his current reality is not.

The other side is relief from whatever is causing him distress on this side of the line.

It could be his boss.

It could be his job.

It could be the pile of unread emails in his inbox.

Something is wrong and it's gotten so bad that he's standing with his toes on the line.

At this moment, he's vulnerable. The next problem, request, or needless meeting is going to push him over the line. He doesn't know if life on the other side of the line will be better or worse. He doesn't care. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that the other side of the line is different from his current reality. He didn't get to the line because someone dangled more money in front of him. He hasn't even talked to a recruiter or applied for a job. He has no idea what he wants to do. He doesn't hate where he is, but he has gotten to the point where he is ready to say, "Enough." Some days, when he gets to the line, he can find a reason to step away. Some days, he isn't even at the line. He's far from it and wouldn't entertain the idea of doing something different. But on the days when he's at the line, something new might catch his eye.

He might return that recruiter's message. He might respond to that email just to "learn more about the role." He might do a search for his current job title on LinkedIn just to see what's out there. At that moment, he's ready to step across the line. After that first step, he might take another, then another, and at the end, he's telling his co-workers he's leaving for something new. He's too far over the line to come back. His managers will say he got offered more money. They'll worry about what they can do to keep others from leaving. Meetings will be scheduled. Analysis will be done. If they are lucky, his former co-workers will reap the benefits of his departure in the form of retention agreements. But eventually, they'll get pushed to the line, too. They'll be asked to take on too much. They'll be asked to respond to that fire drill. They'll be told to do one more project because it's an urgent need. No other work will be put on hold or taken off the to do list. It all needs to be done.

Maybe she's next. She knows how he got to the line. She had never been there herself, but once he left, she took on his work. She's stepped up to the line more, lately. She's stepped back, gone to the office happy hour, laughed with her co-workers and gone home feeling better about things. The next morning, when she opens her inbox, there are again more things than she can do by the end of the day. She tries to prioritise and delegate, but everyone is approaching the line. She looks around and can see it on their faces. They've all had enough. They're all vulnerable. If they get the call or email at that moment, they will step over the line and start a new journey. It happens every day. It happens to everyone. That line is what we now call burnout. Do you notice when you are at the line? Do you notice when your employees are at the line? Can you step back? Can you help them step back? If you cannot, you're done. And so are they.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. This is part of a bigger picture. There is a flooding of statistics showing the great levels of disengagement amongst UK workers and the structural, financial and societal costs of it.

Research from Oxford Economics and income protection providers Unum indicates that staff turnover costs British businesses at least £4.13bn every year as new employees take up to eight months to reach optimum productivity levels. The average fee for replacing a departing staff member is £30,614. And if we are talking about highly educated executive positions, the cost to replace a £100k/year CEO can go as high as £213,000.

The numbers vary from study to study and what makes it so hard to predict the true cost of employee turnover is the fact that are many intangible, and often untracked, associated costs.

This is not a pretty picture, so where do we go from here? Where can we look for answers?

First of all ask yourself what can push any of us close to that line?

Can it be too much work, not being rewarded enough, not feeling that we have a fair chance of going up the ladder, not having control over our day to day work, not feeling part of the team or not feeling that our vision and goals are aligned with the vision and mission of the organisation?

This last part is one I want to talk a little bit more about and the part in which I believe we can find a solution. The issue concerning the alignment of values and mission is one of the main reasons why in today’s work environment people choose to change their jobs so often.

So the second question ought to be asked is: what are you willing to do so he and others will not cross that line?

Remember that is very likely that the vision and the mission of the organisation played an important part in what attracted him in the first place to work there. That means that the main issue is the implementation of values by the organisation. Sometimes, the issue can be a structural one, one across the board and it can be solved by a review and polishing of the internal policies and procedures and organisational change interventions.

But often the issue lays in the fact that company’s values are not being reflected into leadership’s behaviours. Remember the Marcus Buckingham quote: “People leave managers, not companies”? Sometimes the leadership’s values and behaviours can create a toxic work environment one in which burnout can thrive.

In this case, it means that, actually, there is a conflict of values between the employee and the leader. This is one of the most difficult conflicts to solve because it implies fundamental personal principles and sometimes it implies even the identity of the persons in cause. This sort of conflict cannot be solved through a raise, through a nice year-end bonus or an extra holiday.

So with this awareness gained, are you, as a leader, willing and ready to initiate contact with the employee?

Are you willing and ready to confront this problematic situation?

If you are, the purpose is to explore which of the employee’s values are not being implemented in the work environment. And to change the work climate to facilitate that implementation.

But the climate is shaped by the leader, which means that only the leader can initiate the change. And change can be frightening. Because any change can involve some form of loss.

What do you have to lose if you change the climate?

What do you have to lose if you challenge and change one of your own values, beliefs or behaviours?

Confronting a situation like this can be a very delicate moment.

A moment full of tension for both the employee and the leader.

So how can we make it a successful one?

One of the best solutions that I would recommend is the initiation of a reassurance exchange

What does the employee need?

What reassurance does the employee need?

What reassurance does the leader need?

What does the leader need?

These 4 questions are fundamental if you want to make an evaluation of the situation in which an employee or 80 employees are thinking to cross that line.

But… there’s always a but!

What if as a leader you are not willing to ask for reassurance?

Again the fear of loss that we were talking about earlier might come into play.

What do you have to lose if you would ask for reassurance?

Often, is the illusion of POWER, the image that we believe we have to keep in front of our employees.

And sometimes, because we want to protect this image about ourselves we refuse to initiate the dialogue with the employees.

In other words, before you initiate any dialogue, ask yourselves what do you want to protect: your professional self-image or the mission of the organisation?

Once you have your answer, then you can initiate a dialogue and start a negotiation.

To reach an agreement in a negotiation such as this, it is important to acknowledge the way in which both the employee and the leader understand the values and mission of the organisation and also the way in which both perceive the reality of their own wants and needs. And in order to do so we have listen to each other and we have to be empathetic. Empathy is probably the most important skill that a leader can have today.

This is the only way we get answers for those four fundamental questions that will allow us to move forward.

So what we talked about here were three stages that we can follow in order to address the issue of employee turnover when is caused by burnout.

Firstly, Self-reflection, oriented towards what is important for us and why. This is the stage in which the employee reflects on whereas he should or not cross the line and the leader reflects on choosing between protecting his/her self-image or the organisation's mission.

This is followed by an evaluation stage, for understanding our own and other’s needs and asking the four fundamental questions.

So then we can initiate the last stage of confrontation and negotiation of reassurance in which we are making sure that both the leader’s and employee’s values and needs are aligned, and moreover that they are also aligned with the organisation's vision and mission.

Why do I believe it is important to talk about this?

Because, in my practice and in my day to day life I see how we SURVIVE at the workplace. From shop floor to top floor.

We just survive. What’s missing? The LIVING. We need to feel like we are alive at the workplace and not just on auto-pilot.

And when we see an employee ready to cross that line, there’s a big chance that he/she wants to start living, not just surviving. The desire to live can be a very powerful resource.

Through a confrontation of values, in which we understand each other’s needs and what’s significant for us we can create GROWTH together.

I know how it feels to just survive at the workplace. I’ve done it for years. I’ve been at that line and crossed it. But I realised that I want to do more than just surviving, I want to feel alive. And I would like to invite all of you to be the central point of change in your organisations so you and your teams can live and grow together.

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