Sunday, 4 September 2016

Swipe left, swipe right

In many of my previous posts I've compared the employment relationship to actual relationships and have promised many times to blog in more detail about my comparisons, in particular the ways in which employees fall in and out of love with organisations.

Here's that post.

It obviously has some resonance for me at the moment as I very recently got married. This means I've been reflecting at length on the subject of love, affection, and what it means to be engaged in a relationship both in the marital sense and in the emotional sense.

Now I've had some experience in actual relationships. More than I ever thought I would to be honest. At one point I had a very popular anonymous blog about dating and relationships. So I like to think I know what relationships are about, mostly because I've made loads of mistakes along the way.

But I do think relationships at work are similar to actual relationships, and that the concept of being in love with someone can be equated to employee engagement. After all, accepting an offer of a permanent contract with an employer is as long term as any relationship and in many modern cases, longer.

Hopefully you know what it's like to be in love with someone. You can't wait to spend time with them. You think about them regularly. You find yourself doing nice things for them and seeking praise from them. You talk them up to other people. You enjoy being around them. And there's more besides that, but mainly bedroom stuff and, frankly, this isn't that kind of blog.

But if you're actively and highly engaged with an organisation, it's remarkably similar. You look forward to going to work. You find thoughts about your work passing through your head regularly when you're not there. You find yourself doing nice things for the organisation, commonly known as exerting discretionary effort and going beyond what's expected. You find yourself motivated by good things that happen at work and praise. You talk the organisation up to other people and are an active brand ambassador on social media, regularly promoting its activities and interacting with the brand. And you take part in work social activities and other events.

But what happens when this starts to go wrong?

I've had numerous relationships that have gone wrong. In all cases one party has changed. Sometimes it's so gradual it's not noticeable, other times it can be almost overnight when you wake up one morning and simply don't recognise the person you're next to in bed. I had a marital split that was like that.

And I've had working relationships end in similar ways. I guess everyone leaves a job at some point and if you were 100% happy you'd have stayed. There's something that's made you move on, even if you were largely happy there, it's the small % of unhappiness that has made you move.

Actual relationships are the same. If you are 100% happy you'll not look around for companionship elsewhere or seek another relationship. Often if you're mostly happy you'll stay put too, because it's a big emotional jolt to end a relationship.

And yet, if there's something not quite right, shouldn't you take steps to address that either by putting that right in the relationship or by moving on? Surely you deserve to be happy with someone else than even slightly unhappy?

I've had women end relationships with me using that sentence and it hurts, even though deep down I know they're right.

But does this hold true in working relationships?

If the company culture is strong enough and the line management relationship is similarly strong, then if the employee or employer is slightly unhappy with the other then a conversation will take place and things will happen to make it right again. If these attempts fail, then the employee should be encouraged to move on.

And I say encouraged meaning that there ought to be some kind of inducement or at least support to find another employer. Outplacement and that sort of thing.

But what if the trust has gone completely? What if all the things that attracted you to the employer in the first place and kept you loyal and engaged for, probably, years, have one by one disappeared? What if all the people you trusted and looked to for friendship and support have gone completely or moved to other roles? What if the team you built and shaped and developed are no longer your team? What if everything's different?

In short, what if you don't recognise the employer you're in bed with any more? Can the required conversation even take place? I don't think it can.

It's akin to finding your partner is having an affair. You just don't see it coming but it's devastating when it does.

And here you may start to see the same things happen in both actual and working relationships.

Obviously there will be trust issues presenting themselves. Neither party will wholly trust the other to give 100% of their part of the bargain. There will be a loss of pride in the relationship, in that the employee may no longer feel proud to work for the organisation or to be involved with its work, and may stop telling others who they work for as they may struggle to actually say the employers name. The employee may stop trying, stop giving their discretionary effort and do only the bare minimum to get by. They may, as I've posted about before, become invisible within the organisation and unconnected to it on social media. Presenteeism becomes rife. The employee may get annoyed easily at little things the employer does, and vice versa. And these little things become major issues as neither talks to the other about them. There's a lack of engagement in the relationship, and the spark has gone.

Basically, the employee doesn't recognise the employer any more.

And that's sad. Because it affects how each party views the other. Where once there was love, loyalty and pride, there's now mistrust, fear and antagonism.

And these can build. So how does an employee survive in a loveless relationship?

And I mean loveless in the sense that the love was there once, and is noticed more by its absence as a result. I've been in several relationships where that has happened and inevitably resentment creeps in. It becomes difficult to get through each day in this type of relationship and feelings of wanting to leave the relationship will inevitably dominate. But what should happen here?

In an actual relationship, leaving a long term spouse or partner can be extremely difficult as it may involve separating assets and families. But in the employment relationship it's easier. There's notice to serve but other than that it's a lot simpler. And yet many organisations don't spot unhappy employees or worse don't know what to do with them.

My own view is that if the employee can't become highly engaged again, and is at least not being disruptive or too negative, then the organisation should provide whatever support that employee needs to find a new "partner". When that employee looks back in years to come they will then have fond memories of their parting from that employer, and may come to regret leaving if indeed the grass isn't greener on the other side. They may even come back.

Now this is where working relationships differ greatly from actual ones. If your actual spouse is unhappy then you shouldn't faciiltate them finding a new partner. You don't set up their Tinder account or give them time off to date other people. And if they move on, you don't necessarily want them trying to come back or hassling you with their regret.

But in the employment relationship I think this could work and we could do more to help.

One other similarity is searching for love again after a broken relationship. The first few dates you have are often disasters, while you work off your issues and stop comparing people and things too much. You may become quite cynical about ever finding love again and bounce between relationships, then, when you're not expecting it, BOOM You're in love again.

It may take months, or years. It may be on your first subsequent relationship or your tenth, but if you've been capable of love and being loved again then it will happen again.

There's Plenty of Fish (pun intentional) in the sea, after all.

Of equal importance is the early stages in a relationship when both parties are often assessing the long term suitability of the other. The organisation needs to try as hard as it can to convince the employee to give it 100% of their effort.  If the organisation doesn't try, why should the employee?  In an actual relationship this is very much two-way but in the working relationship I think the onus lies with the employer as part of the settling-in process, and this is where we in HR can really influence things by creating the right culture, coaching line managers on what to do and leading on things like internal communications and L&D.

It's a hard thing when love goes sour in a relationship, but by helping employees to know when to swipe left and when to swipe right, we might heal some broken hearts.  And by making sure organisations do the right thing in the early stages of a new relationship we can help love to blossom.

Here we go again with my "HR as pimps" analogy.

Till next time…


PS in other news -honeymoon approaches…a Norwegian Fjords cruise!

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