On the Way Out? Stepping Back

I’ve previously mentioned Stepping Back in this series, although not be that name – I briefly covered the subject when I discussed Work Habits in On the Way Out?  Changing Work Habits.  It is such an obvious sign that an employee might be preparing to leave, however, that it deserves its own post.

To understand what Stepping Back consists of, it is instructive to first consider it’s polar opposite – Stepping Up.

When an employee Steps Up, she agrees to take responsibility for something.  It might be a new project, a specific job activity, or an organizational objective.  When Stepping Up, the employee communicates to the manager “no need to worry, I’ve got this.”  Stepping Up allows the manager to relax (only to a degree, if he’s prudent) knowing that the subordinate will examine and handle all the details and other minutiae that could prevent success.  Stepping Up isn’t about capability, intelligence, past track record, or anything of the sort (I once had an employee that couldn’t seem to help himself.  He Stepped Up on almost every challenge the business had, even though he didn’t have the horsepower to get it all done) – it’s about engagement.

The most engaged employees (which typically correlate rather well with the most valuable) are the ones that regularly Step Up.  And while there is an element of self-confidence and extroversion involved in Stepping Up, on average engaged employees Step Up while disengaged employees Step Back.

When I think of Stepping Back, a video snippet pops into my head where a line of soldiers all step backward when their commanding officer asks them to volunteer for a dangerous mission (except for one hapless idiot who doesn’t seem to notice he’s been left behind).  In a business context, Stepping Back works similarly – the employee that is stepping back is the one who appears to be deeply immersed in thought (perhaps studying doodles on a notepad) while the boss is asking for help.

If you’re a manager, you’ll often have some people that Step Up for a challenge – even when doing so might be risky or even potentially self-destructive.  Likewise, you’ll also have people that habitually Step Back.  These are normally your disengaged employees.  If you’re lucky, there will be far more of the former type than the latter.

Classifying employees into either camp (or registering them as a part of the silent middle) is not all that tricky.  Spotting changes, however, takes a bit more work.

When an employee abruptly shifts from Stepping Up to Stepping Back, something has or is about to change.  The cause could be a loss of confidence in leadership (possibly company leadership, but more likely yours,) a problem in their personal life, or it could be an engaged employee in the process of departing.

The explanation behind this is simple:  It’s tough for even the most engaged employee to volunteer for extra work when they are in the midst of a job search.  In the first place, they will need to devote LESS time to their job, not MORE.  Job searches take time and effort, after all.  Secondly, and probably a bigger factor – it is tough to welcome additional tasks when you don’t picture yourself sticking around to see them to completion.  It seems unfair to your coworkers that will have to pick up the pieces once you leave with the job half-completed.  It seems… dishonest.

While some employees are clever enough to fake it and continue to Step Up without the intention of finishing the work, I’ve found that to be rare.

Stepping Back is one of the earlier signs that something is amiss with a subordinate.  Even if that “something” isn’t an impending departure, in every circumstance I can think of you should talk to the employee about her change in commitment.  Discussion is the most direct path to diagnosing what ails the employee, although some will likely deny and obfuscate.  In the face of denial, you should watch for some of the other signs that the employee is “On the Way Out.”

Even if the employee doesn’t ultimately leave for greener pastures, Stepping Back is a clear sign that you have a problem you’ll need to deal with, and the sooner the better.

Other Posts in this Series:

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Below is the cover of LEVERAGE.  This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery.  The tale features first level manager, Mark Carson, and the struggle he experiences as he finds the resources of the corporation aligned against him.  Its sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, (to the left) was released in May of 2014.  A third book in the series, OUTSOURCED, is in the works.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.