On the Way Out? Relationships

Work relationships can morph over time for a variety of reasons – shifting political alliances, changes in interests or hobbies, slights and perceived insults, or sometimes something as simple as a change in the person with whom you choose to eat lunch.  Personal relationships also change for similar reasons – evolving interests and activities, petty disagreements or arguments, or simply changes in the people we normally encounter in our day.

Sometimes, however, the cause of a relationship change is much more severe.  At work these changes are most often caused by political victimization including:  Blaming, scapegoating, or public humiliation.  On the personal side, the cause of relationship disruption can include divorce, betrayal of trust, or death of a loved one.

When any of these more significant disruptions arise, there is an escalating risk that your employee may quit.

Disruptions at Work

Personal betrayal (or the perception of it) is at the root of most major work-relationship disruptions.  This often starts with the mistaken belief that coworkers are actually friends rather than merely allies.  I’ve written about this phenomena before (They Aren’t Really Your Friends) but no matter how much cautionary advice is tossed out there, people will still be hurt when “used and abused” by a coworker in an act of political gamesmanship.

I am reminded of my surprise and bafflement when watching the reality show “Survivor,” a program specifically designed to pit contestants against one another in a series of alliances and political battles.  In every season of the show (and I haven’t watched them all, by any means,) at least one person is outraged that an avowed “friend” has “betrayed” them.  Hello?  Have you not watched the show?  This effect is exactly what the program is designed to produce.

Clearly the person “inside” the relationship sometimes can’t see the superficial nature of “Survivor” alliances.  They get real emotion wrapped into a situation that they knew at the outset was supposed to be a contest, one with a single winner.

The exact same thing plays out in the work environment, albeit in a less-obvious way and generally at a slower pace.

And when one of your valued subordinates is the victim of such a scheme, you are at risk of having her depart the company for greener pastures.

Disruptions at Home

More frequent are home problems that bleed over into the work environment.  While a number of personal issues can cause a major complication for the employee’s work (death of a family member, a failed adoption, the arrest of a child, etc), the one that I’ve most commonly impacting an employee’s work-life is divorce.  I’ll use divorce as a proxy for all home relationship disruptions.

When an employee is divorced, the entire picture of his life is cast into disarray.  It is during this time that the employee is most likely to decide that they want to make a radical life-change (quitting their job buying a sailboat and sailing around the world, for example).  While I’m an advocate of people frequently popping their head out of the corporate muck and exploring what they want to do with the balance of their life, such decisions are usually not best made when the person is extremely emotionally charged.  Perhaps a career change is in order for your divorcing subordinate, but probably not becoming a circus performer or a gold prospector.  Unfortunately, these are the kinds of options employee sometimes come up with when in the midst of an emotional crisis.

I once had a trusted and critical subordinate that went through a divorce right when I needed him most.  He was often upset, his  temper was short, and his mood swings were unpredictable.  Had I not been aware of his delicate state, I could have easily reacted to one of his emotional outbursts in a way that would have sent him rushing for the exits.  As it turned out, I was able to preserve him in his job during a time I desperately needed his expertise.  I did this by listening, being compassionate, and sometimes helping him think through options related to his life and his future.

Significantly, after I left that position, he lasted only a year before launching into a radical career change.  I suspect my replacement was oblivious to the situation, and hence much less “understanding.”

I see it, so now what?

Usually identifying a major relationship disruption isn’t difficult.  There are typically multiple outward emotional signs in the person (a reduction in sociability, a shorter fuse, breakdowns or crying).  Even if you don’t personally see it, others will notice and hopefully remark in it to you.  If the disruption is work-related, there are typically plenty of people that know the story.  If it is non-work, there are usually a few that “know the story.”  You have to depend on your both your powers of observation and your own network of relationships to discover there is a problem and determine what is really going on.

You should feel free to dig as deeply as is necessary to understand the root cause of the problem.  Relationship disruptions can only occasionally be repaired, but the “victim” can almost always be helped.  Without a thorough understanding of the situation however, you’ll just be fumbling around in the dark and be at high risk of making an embarrassing mistake.

Unlike most of the other signs of impending subordinate departure, relationship disruptions require a unique approach.  An offer of more money or a change in responsibilities isn’t likely to help someone who is emotionally hurting.  Instead of the usual interventions, I counsel lots of listening and patience.  These are typically not problems you can “solve” for the employee (particularly if they are caused by outside-of-work relationships).  What you CAN offer, however, is understanding and an alternate perspective.  Occasionally, you may be able to resolve a work relationship disruption through some kind of direct intervention, but I would be hesitant to wade in as I’ve seen this kind of thing spectacularly backfire.  On the personal front you MUST stay away from direct involvement as inserting yourself is just begging to become part of the problem, and you’ll almost certainly lose the employee in the process.

From there you should “play it by ear,” providing whatever assistance and understanding you can to your valued subordinate.  By taking a supportive role when there is serious relationship disruption, you may just be able to prevent your critical employee from being “On the Way Out.”

Other Posts in this Series:

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To the left is the Audiobook cover for INCENTIVIZE.  This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

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