He came into my office one afternoon and sat down. I could tell immediately that he had a lot on his mind and that he seemed to be overwhelmed by something. He started our conversation by gratitude that I did not actually work for the company and that our conversation would be confidential as he considered the decisions ahead of him. I had seen him around the offices on several occasions where we had exchanged small talk. I could tell from a variety of interactions that he was a dedicated employee who had been with the company for several years and was highly valued by colleagues, coworkers and superiors. However, he was not feeling any of these that day.
He began by stating outright that he was seriously considering leaving the company. I could tell that the thought of this in itself was distressing. He truly bled the company colors. As I inquired as to what was bringing him to this decision, he stated that he was working 80 hours per week, was coming in at all hours of the night to get his job done, and it didn’t look like there was any hope or light at the end of the tunnel.
My next question caught him a little off guard, at least until he stopped to gather his thoughts. I asked, “How did you behave yourself into this situation?” After he recovered from the initial shock he asked me to elaborate. I did so by asking a few more questions.
What do you do? “I take care of 16 of 26 divisions for the company in my particular function”
Who takes care of the other ten divisions? “There are two other people who share those”
Why the extensive imbalance? “They are new and inexperienced”
Who raises their hand when there is a new and significant project to be handled? “I do”
Why? “I have more experience and know what needs to be done and can be sure it is done well. . . . . I think I see where you’re going with this”
Does your supervisor know you are overloaded and considering quitting? “Well, he should, he’s my supervisor”
With what I know about the managers/supervisors in this company, that is a big assumption. I am sure he doesn’t. His plate is as full as yours. “That’s true”
We spoke briefly of the need for supervisor training on social awareness and truly engaging and listening to their people. Then I told him that should this occur, it would take some time to make a difference, and would not solve his immediate problem.
When your supervisor walks by and asks you how things are going and how you are doing, how do you respond? “Well, I tell him I’m fine or that things are great. I am not a complainer and am not looking for sympathy.”
And as long as you keep on responding this way, he may never know. You know, I believe he would be really surprised by your departure. (keep in mind; I do not know who his supervisor is) “You think so?”
Do you think you or your work will be missed if you leave? “Well I’m sure they would have to scramble to get it all done, but I just don’t think I can do this anymore. It is taking a toll on my family and now it’s beginning to take a toll on me physically”
I believe you are right. I can see your stress and anxiety. You are visibly shaking and upset, and I believe on the verge of burnout. Something does need to change, and pretty fast. “That’s why I think I need to quit?”
That is a good alternative, because you can’t go on this way. “What other alternative is there?”
Well I would suggest that you keep this as plan A. Plan B, which I would encourage you to consider since you have nothing to lose, is to sit down with your supervisor, and in a very professional manner, explain to him just what you explained to me. I think you may be surprised. “That will be a tough conversation, but you are right. I have nothing to lose. If nothing changes I will just go ahead with plan A and quit. I just don’t want him to feel as if I am blackmailing him for my personal benefit, because that is really not what this is all about. I’ll do this and let you know what happens.”
A couple of days later he came back to my office. I told him I was surprised to see him because I thought he had been pretty intent on quitting. He said “I followed plan B and explained the situation to my supervisor, who was utterly surprised by the load I was carrying, and deeply ashamed of his lack of awareness about it. He really made me feel good when he told me that there was no way he wanted to lose me. He agreed that my two counterparts were not quite ready yet, but he realized that I could not keep on doing things the way I had been doing them. Together we developed a plan to move a few of my projects to my counterparts and to hire an assistant to help me with a lot of the administrative things that would allow me to be more effective until we got the others ready for more responsibility.”
So, how are you feeling now? “I really believe I am going to be okay. My wife is very happy with the outcome. I can already feel the load lightened and can enjoy my wife, my kids and my life, again.”
I am glad you’re better. I concluded our conversation with one more question. So, how will you ensure that you don’t behave yourself into something like this again, or allow your future direct reports to end up in the same situation? This conversation took us on a full review of the learning points from this experience.