Saving a Valued Employee With One Foot Out the Door

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It’s rarely good news when a valued team member expresses serious thoughts of leaving. In some cases there may have been signs of disconnect, yet those signs were not interpreted as evidence of a deeper problem. In other cases, we’ve recognized that an employee’s experience has not been ideal, but failed to address the fallout. Ultimately,  managers are caught completely off-guard — and a response in the moment is difficult to construct. Yet, timely decisive action is necessary to avoid a one-way pass into the “departure lounge”.

One option to direct this response, is to apply the notion of core stability and the psychological constructs that contribute. This may help a manager understand where things fell apart and offer clues to a possible resolution.

Consider the case of Michael, a research analyst who had been recently promoted. His new role focused on the development of a new insight survey, which would hopefully become a strong revenue center for the organization. Michael jumped into the development phase excited and good faith, preparing the necessary business plans with supporting numbers. But, the process inexplicably stalled in upper management with no direction toward a resolution. His manager failed to notice that while Michael appeared to persevere, repeated revisions of his plan had drained his psychological resources. With his former duties re-assigned, he felt he could no longer contribute in a meaningful way. After repeated attempts to right the ship, he gave notice.

Unfortunately, becoming attuned to an employee’s level psychological capital (Hope, self-efficacy, resilience, optimism) is not as commonplace as it should be. Furthermore, breaches of the psychological contract are common and are often left undetected.

What can a manager do in these situations?

  1. Assess the damage. Sit down with your employee for a candid heart to heart. Explore the situation and inquire about the events that have created the most stress or exhaustion. Apply the construct of the psychological contract, to determine if there has been a breach of the employer-employee exchange relationship. In the case of Michael, he felt that a promise had been made to invest in his expertise, yet he was repeatedly rebuffed. On some level, he felt the organization had misled him down a dead-end path with little support.
  2. Own up. If possible, intervene. Acknowledge that you should have been more aware. If you suspect that a breach has indeed occurred, inquire what you might do to rectify the situation. For Michael, offering to serve as an advocate and exploring the obstacles standing in the way of an accepted business plan would be in order. A timely, targeted resolution to restore faith is vital. It is possible that the individual’s psychological resources can be bolstered.
  3. Ask for time. Ultimately, time is necessary to put a course of action into motion. Clarify that course and ask for time (breathing room) so they might reconsider their thoughts of leaving. In some cases, a breach of the psychological contract can be mended — but the associated emotions require time (and forward progress) to settle. In Michael’s case, the project stall couldn’t be rectified. That offered him the information needed to make an informed decision.

Sadly, not all situations can be saved. However, acting once a problem is revealed may help your employee see his or her relationship with the organization in a better light. If not, lay the groundwork for a possible return in the future.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this? Were you the manager or the employee? What happened?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who explores challenge and change in work life. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

3 thoughts on “Saving a Valued Employee With One Foot Out the Door

  1. This happens to many of us and it is indeed, very frustrating. We have the knowledge to change things — yet many managers aren’t aware of the strategies that would impact these relationships for the better. I hope you find that role.

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  2. For three years I have brought up major concerns about my future with my company during my yearly review and each time they get sufficient lip service but nothing more. Not one of the concerns has ever been addressed outside that meeting and it leaves me more frustrated year after year. I like the people I work with but management is more focused on engineering work and much less focused on managing. For a guy like me with a masters in organization leadership it is even more difficult because I know much of what they are doing wrong but don’t have any power to change it. If I were not paid so well I would have been gone a long time ago. I have been casually looking for a new job for three years, looking for the right fit that will be an improvement over what I have now – not just a different job. When I find that, if I find that, they will lose a good productive engineer. You can’t just SAY you care about your employees and appreciate what they do, you have to DO the things that make those very people feel appreciated.

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  3. Great article! The hyperlink article regarding breaches of the psychological contract was very eye-opening and is a must read.

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