Leading from the middle–practical advice

Leading from the middle can feel, well, muddled at times.

As a middle manager, you have to manage up, manage down and manage yourself.

We have a guiding principle at Padraig we reflect on when we run workshops with middle managers: The role of the middle manager is to provide fearless advice and loyal implementation.

We consider this the guiding north star for middle managers because no matter what you encounter in your professional life, you’ll stay on track leading from the middle when you remember your twofold role of providing fearless advice and loyal implementation. Essentially:

Managing Up is the fearless advice part of being a middle manager.
To do this well, you need to be:

  • Proactive
  • Open-minded
  • Inquisitive
  • Goal oriented

Managing Down is the loyal implementation part of being a middle manager.
This requires that you are able to get buy-in (even if you initially opposed an idea or strategy). To do this, you need to be:

  • Empathetic
  • Solution-focused
  • Able to use a Coach Approach with your staff

Managing Yourself is really about building resilience.
We’ll devote a future blog to this topic more fully, but as a quick overview for today, we’ll use this model from DRIVEN in Australia:

We like it as a model for building resilience because it covers all the areas – Vision, Composure, Reasoning, Health, Tenacity and Collaboration – that we believe are important when you want to build your own resilience.

Take a moment to look at this model and read over the six areas. Then consider:

  • How would you rate yourself, on a scale of one to 10, on each area of the model?
  • How often do you check in on how you’re doing in each area (and thus know which area you might need to focus on for now)?

Managing Up: What to do when you don’t agree with your boss

One of the trickiest situations for anyone leading from the middle is when you realize that you disagree with the direction your boss is taking or a decision that’s been made.

As a middle manager, you do have a voice and you might have influence. Before you communicate with your boss that you have reservations about something, it’s important to consider the “why” of your disagreement. What is it about the direction or decision that you disagree with?

Are you concerned for the company? Your clients? Your department? Your staff? Your budget? Your career? Is the concern related to your own beliefs, fears or past experiences?

It will help you to have clarity about WHY you don’t agree with your boss. If you reflect on this and determine that you don’t agree, then it’s time for you to step into the role of giving fearless advice.

Preparing to give fearless advice

As you get ready to give your honest feedback to your boss, determine:

What is the best way to communicate with your boss? At Padraig, we like to use the DiSC model to help managers understand how personality styles affect the way we share and receive information. Depending on personality style, your boss might be:

    • Direct, bold, focused on goals
    • Friendly, engaging, focused on ideas and new opportunities
    • Careful and concerned, focused on people
    • Detailed and data-driven, focused on facts

Knowing how your boss likes to receive information can be very helpful when you want to offer fearless advice. You can tailor your “pitch” to the information that matters most to them when they have to make a decision.

What is the best time and location to talk to your boss? Ideally, you’ll determine this quickly. Sooner is usually better than later because leaving it and hoping it will go away will almost certainly lead to a decision you are unhappy with. Consider the location carefully. A private location (away from an audience of your peers or the folks you manage) might be wise.

Giving fearless advice

When you share your objections or concerns with your boss:

  1. Set the stage, if needed. If your boss is bold, focused and direct, you may not need to do this. For the others, you may need to ask permission to be candid and share your intention up front to have an honest, respectful conversation. This might sound like, “I’m struggling with this, and I want to either convince you of my perspective or come around to better understand your direction so that we can implement it.”
  2. Remember, this is a conversation, not a monologue. You are there to understand what you might not yet understand, not to simply tell your boss your opinion. (Pro tip: Revisit our blog about listening styles, which overviews how to listen to understand rather than to reply.) It’s possible you might learn insights that will change your mind.
  3. Ask for, and earn, permission to disagree if that hasn’t already been set. This is important because some bosses handle criticism well and others do not.
  4. Show respect with dissent. Note that saying, “with all due respect” is almost never respectful. Instead, say something like, “I hear you feel X is important, and I understand that (or, I agree with that) but I think Z is going to damage something.” Or, “I really respect your opinion on that. I worry that X will harm the situation.” It can be helpful to start with the 10 percent you agree with before you start talking about the 90 percent that is problematic for you.
  5. Share your WHY. Acknowledge what is driving you – WHY are you concerned? (Remember that resolving conflict always starts with the WHY.) How will you know if there is room for influencing the decision?
  6. Know when it’s time to move on. It’s possible that the decision has been made, and your objections will be heard but not make a difference. Be clear with your boss what has come of the conversation. For example, you might say:

“I understand you’ve made your decision, and while I need some time to get comfortable with it, I will certainly support the decision and do my best to make it successful.”

“I can see you feel strongly about this. Can I take a day to figure out how best to represent it to my team?”

“We both feel strongly about what’s best here, and I’m not sure we’re seeing it the same way. I know the final decision is yours, and I will certainly respect it. Are you open to any more conversation before you finalize things?”

Managing Down: Communicating to your team:

As we’ve mentioned, part of leading from the middle is loyal implementation of decisions, strategies or goals. This means you need to buy-in to the decision and get the buy-in of those you manage, which can feel challenging when you disagree with the decision.

Before we continue, let’s be clear. Understanding what the issue is and buying into the chosen direction is not the same as agreeing with something. Buy-in means you respect that the decision is not yours and you will support the decision-maker and the organization with whichever decision they make.

Buy-in also means you will show support for that decision with others – you must never go to others and complain that you think the decision maker is wrong, or that you would have done it differently. For starters, that’s irrelevant since you’re not the decision maker and it’s damaging because it destroys trust, undermines authority and builds a culture of complaining behind peoples’ backs.

To implement this new decision or strategy, you’ll need to:

  • Understand it and buy-in for yourself first. Your team likely won’t buy-in if they sense hesitation on your part. As noted, you don’t have to agree with it, but buying in means you accept it was that person’s decision and you’re ready to help them make it work.
  • Sort out the timing and prep for it. The more prepared you are, the better you’ll field questions from your team in ways that support the decision. It’s good to be timely in presenting it to your team, but it’s critical that you have the right mindset.
  • Maintain respect for the company and your boss. Your role as a middle manager is to implement this, not undermine it. One way you can do this is to share information about what helped you buy into the idea.
  • Be specific. Share as much information as you can. One of the most important ways to get buy-in on big ideas is to be able to articulate the vision behind a decision and why it’s essential or important.
  • Watch what you say (and how). Mixed messages will not fly! Stick to the fact that you’ve bought into this and you want to make it succeed.
  • Set clear expectations. Focus on collaboration, understanding and buy-in (possibly the same way your boss set expectations with you!).
  • Allow venting, not debate. People can air their concerns. Use dissent as a way to hear them and provide information that explains why this is being implemented but stop the discussion if it becomes arguments against the decision.
  • Use a Coach Approach. This is an opportunity to ask questions aimed at helping staff figure out how they can make this work (for themselves, for their clients, etcetera…). Instead of dictating the answers, using a Coach Approach is an effective way to get folks to figure out solutions they can buy-into. Use questions like, “Now that we’re going this route, what help do you need to make it happen?”
  • Follow-up more than once. Check in with your staff to see how things are going and how they’re feeling. This way, you can help to troubleshoot concerns and celebrate successes. Guidance often has to be delivered many times before people have clarity, so make an effort to communicate regularly or even over-communicate.

Coach’s Questions:

Is there a sticky middle-management issue that you’re facing? What fearless advice do you want to share? What can you do to succeed more with managing up and managing down? How might you approach this differently? Is there another way you could look at this? What will help you implement this?



How engaged management support of coaching ensures valuable ROI

One of the most important ways for an organization to support successful coaching is to encourage manager support of the coaching process.

Investing in coaching and striving to build a coaching culture is important, but engaged manager support will ensure that a company reaps a real return on investment.

What does engaged manager support of coaching look like?

Coaching is most valuable when there is someone who is responsible for monitoring the coaching engagement at key intervals to ensure that the Coach and Coachee are working toward defined outcomes. This role is often referred to as the coaching Sponsor.

The involvement of a Sponsor is not intended to monitor or control the conversations between the Coach and the Coachee. It’s important that there is trust and confidentiality between the Coach and the Coachee, and thus a trained Coach will never divulge any details of the conversation to the Sponsor (nor even will they usually speak privately with a Sponsor). Rather, the Sponsor is there for support and feedback to the Coachee. Their role is to help the Coachee apply what they’re learning “in real life.”

The Sponsor could (and often should) be the Coachee’s line manager. It’s usually the person who is invested in paying for the coaching and also has a vested interest in the outcomes.

The Sponsor role is a very effective way to support coaching when the Sponsor:

  • Is in a position to understand and assess the Coachee’s strengths, areas for potential gains and leadership goals.
  • Can ensure that the outcomes identified for the coaching are robust and well informed by the context of the Coachee’s role and responsibilities.
  • Is able to provide valuable insights to the Coach and Coachee, including real-time feedback that can be incorporated into coaching.
  • Provides additional support to the Coachee to help provide the tools and resources to meet coaching goals.
  • Advocates for the Coachee, recommending them for opportunities and using their influence to give the Coachee access to new ways to apply what they’re learning.
  • Ensures that the goals for coaching align with the organization’s goals as well as the areas identified for the Coachee that need critical focus.

Respects the confidentiality between the Coach and Coachee so that the coaching relationship can be successful.

When the Sponsor is able to work with the Coach and Coachee to articulate and support the desired outcomes, there is a real opportunity to measure progress and the actual ROI for executive coaching. The Sponsor can provide very important and meaningful contributions to help Coach and Coachee with input that can set objectives that position the Coachee for success.

Here are five ways an effective Sponsor can support the success of coaching:

  1. Help to clearly define coaching objectives at the outset: What will success for this coaching be at the end of the coaching engagement? We recommend those goals include things that will be different by the end of the coaching engagement and things that need to have had a good plan developed for them to continue to be implemented after the coaching engagement. Offer to attend the first coaching session (or, part of it) to share with both the Coach and Coachee what outcomes are expected. This might be specific work results or skills acquired and implemented. The most effective Sponsors are able to provide very good feedback and communicate expectations clearly.
  2. Recognize and celebrate changes and successes: Sponsors have the opportunity to really encourage Coachees. When you notice the Coachee is making progress, acknowledge their effort. This is critical because aside from the Coach and Coachee, the Sponsor is the only other person who will know the coaching objectives. Unbiased feedback from the Sponsor can also be very helpful for the Coach.
  3. Check-in periodically with the Coachee: When a Sponsor checks with a Coachee to see how the coaching is going, it underscores that the coaching experience is valuable and important to the Sponsor (and the organization). It also ensures that the coaching sessions stay on track. Without being intrusive into confidential matters, effective Sponsors can demonstrate that they are engaged managers who really care by demonstrating interest and offering encouragement. Consider open-ended questions that aren’t overly intrusive (remembering the confidentiality and trust that are important to the coaching relationship!). These might be questions like: How are things going with your coach? What has been valuable for you? Are there any barriers for you right now? How can I help make things more successful for you?
  4. Identify tangible ways to support the Coachee’s success: As a manager or HR professional, the Sponsor has an opportunity to provide real support for the success of the Coachee. Ask the Coach and Coachee what they need and then find ways to offer support. This might be helping to facilitate opportunities for the Coachee to work on coaching objectives (for example, having the opportunity to lead a meeting, present to a client or take a workshop to build capacity in some way).
  5. Make sure the coaching engagement ends with a debriefing: Meet with the Coach and Coachee when the coaching engagement concludes. This is an opportunity to have an exit discussion about ways the coaching has benefited the Coachee and how the Coachee has grown. The Sponsor can offer thoughtful feedback about specific instances they have noticed, as can the Coach. It’s also an opportunity to identify next steps to continue the learning and growth that has been underway.

Coach’s Questions

What benefits would your organization realize by having engaged manager support for coaching? What challenges or opportunities are leaders facing in your organization that could benefit from coaching? What steps can you take to support coaching and make it more successful?

Supporting Managers: Coaching the person before the problem

Handling employee needs, growth and disputes can consume a lot of time for Managers and for the HR professionals who support them.

As managers and HR professionals, we want to be helpful – we want to solve problems or help folks solve their own problems. However, many times, the focus is on the problem when it should be on the people involved. Just as doctors and nurses need to find the cause and not just treat the symptoms, workplace issues are often bigger and deeper than the problems they create.

While the goal is to find a solution, it can be very empowering to learn coaching strategies to use yourself when others come to you with problems and to help teach to supervisors, managers and other leaders throughout the organization.

We’ve talked about the benefits of using our COACH Approach to leadership. When leaders shift from trying to solve problems that are brought to them and ask questions with curiosity, folks brainstorm more and become self-reliant as they grow more confident about how they can resolve challenges. Whenever team members are involved, they are not only more engaged but they take responsibility for owning the solutions.

While often we think of the leadership team adding coaching to their toolkits, the same benefits apply to human resources professionals. Learning to coach the frontline manager that you’re working with can be very effective in helping them find the way to their own solutions. In turn, they can then use the technique with their staff.

Shifting to a COACH Approach, rather than solving problems for people, would in itself, be a huge win for most managers and most organizations. And then if you want to really hit it out of the park, the goal is to try coaching the person, not the problem.

Here’s what you need to know for coaching the person and not the problem:

  • Personalities are at play: Wherever there is conflict, remember that not everyone involved will communicate, approach situations, interact with others or prioritize the same way. Here’s how personality styles affect conflict on a team. Having a good connection with the person you’re coaching is also important. There are many different tools that help to understand yourself and others (at Padraig, we use the Everything DiSC Assessments with our clients).
  • Coaching is about helping folks grow and develop: It’s possible that you might have advice for someone or even the solution to a problem, but if you jump in and provide that to a manager who comes to you, then they won’t learn how to figure things out on their own.
  • Solving the visible problem now may not solve it next time. While we can all learn from experience, if we figure out a solution to a problem for the moment, but the underlying issue still exists, the problem will resurface – and likely, time and time again. By coaching the person, we help them figure out what is generating this problem and thus they achieve lasting change and growth.
  • Be an active listener: When coaching, you need to offer your full attention. Book a time if you have to, and then listen with the intent to understand rather than to respond. Be curious; listen without judgment and without feeling the need to draw conclusions. Focus on the person, their body language, and their pauses as much as sentences. What might they not be saying? Where are the issues coming from for them?
  • Coaching requires curiosity: When professional coaches coach leaders, they coach the person, not the problem. When leaders use a COACH Approach with their staff they too can focus on the person before the problem. The goal of coaching is to help someone think and reflect. Once you’ve asked some questions to discover the problem, consider going deeper with questions like:
    What is really important to you in this situation?
    What do you think (or, believe) about this situation?
    Where are you stuck?
    What are you feeling as we talk about this?
    When have you felt this way previously? Note that none of these questions start with WHY and each is focused on the person themselves. Using open-ended questions to get to the WHAT helps to move from the complaint or problem to the underlying causes.
  • Resist the urge to fix things: When coaching, your focus is on reflexive inquiry. You’re helping someone else think through their problem, not leading them to the outcome or solution you want – or offering a critique of their situation. Practice being comfortable in the silence of pauses, holding space for someone else to ponder and process. When appropriate, share neutral observations of things the person raises that could be blocks, “I hear you say that X is difficult. Can you say more about that?” “I noticed that X has come up a few times. What are your thoughts?” or, “What does it mean to you when we talk about the challenge you’ve shared about X?”
  • Move toward actions: Even if we’re not trying to simply solve the problem, and you’ve been successful in uncovering some underlying beliefs, barriers or obstacles, help the manager or employee toward next steps. Help them leave with an actionable plan. “So, now that we’ve discovered Z, what do you think your next steps will be?” “What will help you stick to that?”
  • Underscore the value of coaching: After someone has an “aha” moment, ask what was valuable about the coaching session. This helps to attach value to the COACH Approach, which for many folks will motivate them to add coaching to their own leadership toolkit. Then, check-in again a little while later to see how things are going. What worked? What, if anything, would they do differently?

We know that organizations that build a coaching culture win BIG. It has to start somewhere! When HR professionals are able to use coaching to empower and mentor managers, supervisors and other members on the team begin to see the value of coaching those who report to them instead of directing outcomes.

Coach’s Questions:

What are your feelings about coaching? What benefits do you see in coaching the person rather than the problem? When might you try coaching? What would help you try coaching when a problem is brought to your attention, rather than solving that problem for them?



Creating a succession plan doesn’t have to be overwhelming

Successful succession planning requires more than a cursory glance at who could fill key leadership posts.

Ideally, succession planning will be an ongoing process to identify (and guide, coach and mentor!) prospects for a wide variety of vacancies across all levels of the organization.

When there are other pressing demands, it can be challenging for leaders to find the time or for HR managers to convince leadership to make succession planning a regular conversation and focus.

Pro tip: If you need to build a business case for succession planning that addresses common barriers, we’ve got that ready for you.

There are some guidelines for creating a succession plan that will make certain that your organization identifies potential successors and takes steps to ensure they aren’t just qualified and skilled, but experienced and ready to confidently take over when called upon.

How to get started creating a succession plan

Establish the succession planning team: Who is going to be at the table regularly? Is there anyone missing? Most organizations involve the leadership executive and human resources, bringing in more junior managers from various departments as necessary. The most robust succession plans are created as a company-wide initiative, not left for HR to handle alone. Management support, input and accountability are necessary.

Set regular times for succession planning: Pick a time that works for everyone – and make it clear that this is a priority not to be bumped or deferred again and again and again. You don’t know when someone in a key role will leave unexpectedly, get sick and go off on an extended leave – or suddenly pass away. To be ready for worst-case scenarios, your succession planning must be a priority so that you are prepared to fill vacancies as they arise with good candidates.

Identify key roles to consider: Start with the most important for day-to-day operations. This is not just executive level positions but other “anchor” roles across the organization and among all departments. Start with the current organizational structure and then consider the future organizational structure. What changes are expected? What could happen? Confirm current job descriptions and keep them updated.

Document the succession plan: Careful documentation as this dynamic and ongoing succession plan unfolds is important. It helps leaders and managers to communicate about the plan clearly and to evaluate the success of the planning regularly. For example, if prospective successors were identified and decisions were made about mentoring and education, how have things progressed? Actionable steps can be revisited and assessed. In some rare cases, a well-documented succession planning process is also beneficial if an organization is ever accused of unfair practices.

Things to watch out for when creating a succession plan

Be realistic: As you discuss various roles, consider the actual requirements. Many times folks will talk about the ideal qualities for the job tasks and lose sight of what is essential to success in the role within the organization. We often see that people who are good at building X are rewarded with a promotion to a leadership role where they no longer ever build X – rather their days are filled with people problems and managing others who now build X. So, define the competencies. What’s unique to your company for this role? What does it take to lead the people who are on the team currently? Has anything changed? Consider advancements in technology, new developments in the industry at large or new responsibilities that could arise. This helps to identify possible successors who will be ready now and moving forward.

Plan for more than executive level positions: While keeping the C-suite spots filled is critical, it’s important for organizations to plan to backfill the other positions under the executive level as well. It’s helpful to be ready to fill any gaps all the way up the ladder and it also allows the succession planners to become more aware of junior team members who have the potential to someday take on bigger and bigger roles. Be strategic about identifying any vacancies that would make achieving current or future goals difficult. Remember to consider key roles in all departments, including administration, IT, marketing and accounting – and especially any roles that require niche qualifications or skills that would make recruiting new candidates a challenge.

Look for values that align: It’s easy to get caught up in skillset or ability, but good successors are going to have values that align with the corporate culture. Look for candidates who will bring with them the attitude and leadership style that the organization values and that will move the organization forward by continuing to motivate and support the team. (Remember that when personal and corporate values don’t align or when high fliers can’t play nice with others, it can be very demoralizing.)

Determine more than one successor per role: For some reason, many organizations will identify just one successor for each key role. But what happens if that person suddenly announces a move to another city or is gravely ill? Instead, identify a pool of candidates for every role – not only does that ensure you have a Plan C ready if Plan B goes awry but it also avoids the impression that there is only one possible successor. Why limit developing talent? A robust and highly skilled team will give you options to pick the best candidate in future.

Establish ways to mentor successors: Build in ways for the candidates you identify to build on their existing skills and leadership qualities. This includes mentoring with the folks they could be replacing someday so they have adequate time and opportunity to learn the ropes. It also includes opportunities to lead, ways to delegate effectively, how to make good decisions and learning the tools to resolve conflicts in productive and healthy ways. Integrating successors has to start years before they move up so that they understand the role, know the clients or stakeholders and can confidently handle the processes and responsibilities.

Communication is essential during succession planning

Clear and open discussion at the leadership level: It’s important that decision makers collaborate and have candid discussions about the succession plan. We know healthy conflict allows for really good discussions that delve into conflicting ideas and explore various options. This allows for the succession planners to consider unconventional candidates or outliers who might otherwise never be put forward for new or varied opportunities.

Ongoing conversations: Succession planning isn’t a one-time conversation, it’s a plan that evolves as people move and grow and needs change. For it to be successful, communication has to be regular and ongoing, keeping pace with developments in your organization. As a general rule, don’t go more than half a year without, at least, glancing through the succession plan. It’s important to review changes to roles and responsibilities, as well as to re-evaluate potential successors as folks have opportunities for professional development. Are they ready? What was successful? What needs work? What new challenges do various departments, the market or your industry face? It’s wise to plan for what-if scenarios.

Transparency with team members: An effective succession planning strategy includes discussions with potential candidates. It shouldn’t be kept a secret! Leaders may hesitate – and understandably. They don’t want someone to think they’re heir to the throne – nor do they want other team members to give up hope or feel slighted. Good communication means that someone is talking with candidates about their personal goals and letting them know they do have opportunities for advancement in the future. It also means that people in key roles know they are training successors for some day in future and not because you’re pushing them out early.

Ways we can help with succession planning

At Padraig, we can help organizations plan and implement succession planning in a number of ways:

  • We have developed extensive and highly successful leadership development programs to prepare staff to lead and manage. These include:
    • The Network – a year-long comprehensive leadership learning program for those aspiring to management roles and those relatively new to management. The program requires about one day per month of work and delivers enormous return on investment. We offer the program publicly starting two times per year and we can offer it in-house to your organization any time you wish.
    • The Partnership for more experienced managers and leaders who want to deepen their skills, work with a coach and build a network of like-minded peers. This bespoke program of only 6 leaders or fewer per cohort is far less costly than you might think.
  • We also deliver all of our one-day leadership workshops for our client organizations either virtually or in-person.
  • We offer a number of assessment tools including custom 360 assessments to help measure the competencies you’re looking for.
  • And we have a team of highly trained and skilled coaches, who were once managers, leaders and executives themselves, to lead our programs and to coach your leaders and future managers. Reach out for a chat – there’s no obligation and we strictly, absolutely, do NOT try to sell you on anything. We want to have a conversation to understand your business and to figure out if something we do might be helpful for something you do.

Coach’s Questions:

How do you currently approach succession planning? What could you do to make it more successful? What are the first three things you’d like to change?



Employee Retention-Keeping your top talent

Employee retention is beginning to matter a lot more to many businesses.

We saw this as the Great Resignation swept the US last year, with millions of unfilled job openings and reportedly more than four million workers who quit their jobs – both significantly higher than in recent decades. It’s perhaps not surprising that the rates were high in hospitality and retail, areas that had been quick to lay staff off when the pandemic lockdowns started.

It seems that the pandemic has caused many workers to rethink priorities, or take the leap to different career paths. There are reports of some sectors losing more than one quarter of their employees and some industrial plants failing to retain any staff beyond a year.

While at first, economists and business reporters said Canadians were too prudent to leave work en masse, it seems that the Great Resignation is now gaining momentum in Canada and globally.

The Financial Post recently reported that while only 15 percent of Canadian workers quit their jobs in 2021, many more are thinking about it this year. More than 50 percent of generation Z and millennials indicated they might quit their current positions this year. Granted, that’s not the same as having left, but it does speak to a mindset.

Why do good employees leave?

Well, many folks have said they want more flexibility in the workplace. They’re simply not willing to let employers dictate the terms (especially now that the pandemic busted many remote work myths).

It’s not about bigger paycheques and status. The things that motivate people, particularly when times are tough globally, are not usually money and titles. Sure, those can help, but we’ve seen folks during the pandemic really double-down on things we’ve always said were important. Things like having a say in their own success, contributing tangibly to the organization, being respected, feeling engaged and empowered – and that their personal and organizational values align, learning on the job and being supported with training, working collaboratively with others and having at least one friend at work.

Departures can also be a sign that there aren’t opportunities at the moment. It’s time to assess whether internal staff feel left out of opportunities. Is there a bottleneck in progression in the organization? (In other words, a huge middle layer but small executive layer?) This is why it’s important to have an effective system for succession planning. Do you have a plan? Is it well communicated to staff (both those on it and those not yet on it)? Are people content with the culture but moving for experience? That can be good, if they come back some day with more skills and competencies.

It’s a red flag if you’re facing an exodus of employees. If people are leaving unexpectedly, or in droves, or your best people are resigning, then it may indicate there’s something wrong and you’ll want to find out what. Are there signs people are overworked and overwhelmed? That high performers don’t play nice with others? Exit interviews can help but if there is a real problem, they often don’t provide what you need because the people leaving typically distrust that leaders really care why they’re leaving. If you’re experiencing “bad departures” of top talent or large numbers quitting, then it’s often helpful to not only interview those exiting but interview those left behind. Those who stay might not be willing to disclose how they’re feeling but a good technique to find out what’s on their minds is to ask them what the reason others are leaving might be.

It’s essential to determine why staff are leaving. Is it something about the company culture that needs to be fixed? Or is it about opportunities? People moving on isn’t always a bad thing if they aren’t able to get what they need right now but they’re otherwise happy with the culture of the organization. Sometimes even a lateral move can offer challenge and experience. Moving on can mean an opportunity for them to grow and come back. Don’t lose touch with them.

Employee retention strategies

There are many ways to attract and retain top talent. These include:

  • Offering what you may think of as perks (and employees may think of as needs). Think beyond a competitive salary. People are looking for flexible work schedules, remote work opportunities, bonuses for going above and beyond, profit sharing, retirement plans and RRSP matching, extra paid time off and topping up parental leave.
  • Supporting health & wellness. Now more than ever, people want to feel their mental and physical health is important. More and more employers are offering enhanced and expanded extended health benefits (we heard one major employer increased counselling benefits from $500 to $2000 per year), Employee Assistance Programs and stress management sessions. Additionally, employers are reimbursing staff for fitness memberships.
  • Communicating clearly. Not just sharing information, but leading transparently. When leaders communicate openly and honestly, it builds trust and strengthens teams. It’s particularly critical when you need to manage change.
  • Valuing ongoing education and professional development. Employers who invest in developing skills and talents demonstrate they value team members. Providing paid time off to attend in-person or virtual education and paying for or reimbursing tuition will reap dividends. When upskilling is part of succession planning, future leaders, managers and supervisors are given opportunities to learn new competencies and take on projects that build their capacity (Pro tip: Request our Padraig succession planning guide).
  • Providing Leadership Learning opportunities. Making room for education, on the job learning and professional development are important but leadership development is a particularly essential subset of learning that you must provide. Very few people who step into managerial and leadership roles feel prepared, and many don’t succeed. That’s devastating to them, the people they’re leading and the organization’s bottom-line. Providing ongoing leadership development shows you consider managing staff to be of critical importance, it shows those being led that the organization wants to support them with good leadership and it shows those who are leading that you support them growing into their roles. As well, it builds a culture of everyone taking ownership.
  • Providing mentorship opportunities. We often think of mentoring for new or junior employees, which is important because pairing someone new with an experienced team member can build a good foundation and strong relationships. Consider, too, the benefits of offering peer learning opportunities to managers and leaders.

All of these employee retention strategies go a long way toward building a company culture that thrives and retains top talent.

Coach’s Questions:

When you think of employee retention, what have you observed? What signs do you see that people are unhappy or overworked? What employee retention strategies could be opportunities for your organization?




“Yes, and” from a leadership perspective

Parenting experts estimate that toddlers hear the word “no” as many as 400 times a day.

From a leadership perspective, how many times do you think adults have heard no from managers, supervisors, team members and clients? It’s likely equally staggering!

Thinking in terms of strictly yes or no is limiting for humans of any age.

As leaders, we can’t always say yes to everything our team members raise for consideration. From raises to time off to ideas or requests for team composition for special projects, there are times that we may not be able to agree. And that’s okay.

What’s important is how the conversation unfolds.

The problem with an outright “no” when someone broaches a topic is that it not only shuts down the conversation, it can be demoralizing. Want to get some folks to never share during brainstorming sessions or when they’re inspired about something? Say no without actively listening or hearing them out.

Then there’s the “yes, but”. When have you had a proposal or idea declined by, “yes, but x, y and z” the “but” in the response becomes a barrier or a dead end. Saying “yes, but” may feel better as a leader than saying “no” to someone, but in the end the feeling is the same – hitting a wall.

Encouraging creativity in improv theatre

If you’ve ever done or watched improv, you might be familiar with a technique called “yes, and”. It’s a transition that encourages conversation and allows creativity.

Improvisation is as fun to participate in as it is to watch. It encourages folks to generate ideas, work together and get boundlessly creative. To be good at improv, actors have to use active listening skills and consider other people’s perspectives.

The rule of “yes, and” ensures that even far out ideas aren’t shut down on the improv stage.

We have to get ready for the flight to Mars.
Yes, and we can’t forget to bring the monkeys.
Right! And what will they wear?
They need to be warm. Snowsuits with mittens.
Yes, and what about the fish?

Applying the “yes, and” allows for more and more contributions. It lets ideas get refined in a safe, collaborative way. Saying “no” or “yes, but” would change the story arc, wouldn’t it? It would be hard for the other person or people on the stage to contribute creatively. The conversation would be halted, perhaps even jarringly.

Imagine applying this improv technique to business

Consider, from a leadership perspective, the effect on your team members if you switch from “no” or “yes, but” to “yes, and”. We aren’t suggesting you go with the idea of hiring monkeys in snowsuits or blasting off to Mars, but what might transpire if we kept the conversation open and creative?

That “yes, and” phrasing that offers so many possibilities on the improv stage also encourages dialogue in the workplace.

Instead of people feeling their concerns aren’t heard, they feel they are heard (even if you can’t actually agree to what they’re asking):

I’d really like to talk to you about a raise. Everything costs more.
Yes, I can see how that’s a concern for you and it’s also a concern for our business.

When folks have new ideas to share, the “yes, and” response encourages them to contribute:

I’ve been thinking that we could offer that client some tailored reporting.
Interesting. And how do you see that working?
I was thinking that the new accounting software makes updates quick and easy.
That’s true. And what kinds of reports do you think they would value?

(Notice you don’t have to actually say, “Yes, and” but you go with the idea, for now, to dive deeper).

In team meetings, the “yes, and” approach can encourage brainstorming and creativity:

We need to think of a new menu item.
What about a breakfast food?
Yes, and what were you thinking?
Perhaps a cereal with seasonal fruit.
Or how about a savory lunch food?
Yes, and what would that include?

Applying the “yes, and” principle makes sharing ideas safe. It’s a good way to facilitate collaboration because when people hear ideas being affirmed, they feel like building on ideas.

This simple improv technique, from a leadership perspective, can help to build strong teams. Using “yes, and” shows that you value diverse ideas and recognize that there might be more than one solution to a problem. It helps to let go of our own ego and be open to creative and unexpected opportunities.

It also cultivates an environment that truly encourages innovation because generating new ideas is met with interest, not criticism. (And the bonus is that we know organizations with a coaching culture win big!)

Embracing “yes, and” is a great tool for communication

The idea to explore “yes, and” from a leadership perspective came up in a discussion with a former Padraig coach, Steph Jagger, who left us a few years ago to write and publish the story of the year she skied around the world, met her future husband and found herself. Her debut story is titled, Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery was like Eat, Pray, Love in snow and it was fantastic.

Steph has a new novel published this month titled: Everything Left to Remember: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains. It chronicles her experience caring for her mother after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Steph learned from the Alzheimer’s community that the “yes, and” technique of improv is helpful with loved ones experiencing various forms of dementia. Instead of frustrating someone who is confused by arguing with them or correcting them or shutting down the conversation, the “yes, and” principle respects their dignity as you gently explore what they’re experiencing or thinking and redirect them in a safe way with a spirit of collaboration.

As Steph and I talked about her new book, we started talking about how that technique really applies to so much of life, including leadership. As is always the case, my chat with Steph that day was inspiring and insightful. Taking that discussion and applying it with, “yes, and I wonder what that would look like in our leadership blog?” led us here.

If you’re interested in exploring “yes, and” you can check out these resources:

Or google, “Improv classes near me”

If you have a loved one experiencing Alzheimer’s, you can find resources with the Alzheimer’s Society (Click here for the national organization and from there you can choose your local chapter in the top right corner of the screen) and I recommend you buy Steph’s book. I had the privilege to read an advance copy and you can preorder it now (Click here for Canadian bookstores carrying it).

Coach’s Questions:

When have you experienced “yes, but” in response to an idea? Do you often say, “yes, but” to someone at work or elsewhere? What benefits do you see with the “yes, and” technique? Can you think of ways to include this principle in meetings and conversations?




9 HR trends as we turn the corner on the pandemic

There are several HR trends we’re seeing as we return to a new normal two years after the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe.

As we’ve discussed before, there were some surprising lessons we learned from working remotely during lockdowns. It makes sense that a common theme we’re hearing from our coaching clients is how their organizations have all had to restructure, change or adapt (so much so that some of us are tired of the term pivot) in some way.

These experiences all contribute to the HR trends folks are encountering right now. Things like:

Accepting that virtual work is here to stay. While this isn’t true for everyone, of course, because many jobs require front-line effort and client-facing work, the reality is that organizations have realized how well working remotely can work for some roles. We witnessed myths about working from home debunked by necessity! We’ve learned that with work from home, productivity sometimes increases, as does job satisfaction – and it can save on workspace and overhead costs. At the same time, many organizations that pronounced early on they would never return to the office are now seeing costs and losses when we lose synergy and corporate culture. So where does it all shake out? The hybrid workplace. Employees are thriving with a hybrid approach to virtual work that allows some employees to work remotely more often (though not always) and some employees to work in the office more often, if that works for them.

Normalizing flexible work options. Now that we’ve had mass uptake of remote working and seen the success, organizations are moving toward a point where employees who can have flexibility in their schedules, do have flexibility in their schedules. While this is one of the longest coming shifts, it is also perhaps one of the most exciting of current HR trends because it will be a major consideration for retention and stemming the tide of resignations and retirements. Even before Covid, we covered the myriad benefits of telecommuting (as it was called before “WFH”).

Building stronger teams is essential. Strong teams have always played an essential role in organizational success, but now more than ever leaders and managers must build trust and cohesion. It’s important to stay intentional about team building when fewer team members are regularly in the office together. Recognizing this is a challenge is one thing, but what do you do about it? How will you train employees, communicate between remote and on-site staff and develop bonds? With experience and the right tools, leaders can learn to help hybrid teams thrive. We’ve shared tips for leading remote teams, and we’ve even shared strategies for handling performance reviews when your workplace shifts to flexible work arrangements.

Bolstering agile emotional intelligence. With hybrid workplaces becoming the norm across various industries, people management and effective leadership becomes even more critical than before. Talented and adaptable managers will have to become the norm, not only to navigate a digitally connected workforce but also conflicting views about safety/comfort in the workplace. That means training and coaching current managers and future managers to build the leadership cadre you need.

Fostering Resilience. One of the biggest things we’ve learned during the pandemic is that our organizations, and thus our employees, need to be resilient. Employees and managers alike need to be equipped with tools to build resilience alongside productivity and to learn how their approach to change can be managed when it is thrust upon them. Leaders who are able to move to resilient leadership will be prepared to deal with adversity and help their team members to manage uncertainty.

Focusing on Mental Health. We’re living in unprecedented times. It should come as no surprise that the stress and uncertainty facing vast amounts of the population have taken a toll. As organizations scrambled to react to a crisis that was beyond their control, it thrust well-being forward as a factor that, finally, couldn’t be ignored. Mental health has become a priority. Figuring out how to lead an exhausted team when you feel the same way is not easy.

Addressing diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging reaches the forefront. We’re at the point that DEI is finally going beyond counting heads for representation graphs. Matters of diversity and inclusion have become part of the conversation as HR professionals seek to address bias, unfair wages, lack of visibility and voice and other problems that matter to team members and build real diversity.

Recognizing that leadership development is a continuous improvement exercise. Rather than a “one and done course on leadership” approach, more and more organizations are rolling out a combined learning experience of leadership programs and live training, on-the-job opportunities and learn-at-your-own-pace management micro-training. While learning at your own pace will never replace live events, it can be used as an on-the-job reference and learning aid as well as a curriculum to develop staff into managers and managers into leaders. As well, we are seeing massive uptake in the power of peer learning with other leaders. Group and team coaching, and peer learning, coupled with mentors, coaches and guides will take the forefront in the months ahead.

Understanding that corporate culture is under scrutiny. As organizations respond to (or don’t) and dive into (or don’t) issues that are both locally and globally significant – such as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, reconciliation, climate protection and society vs economy to name a few – others are watching and will define your corporate culture for you. Discussing the topics at leadership tables and being deliberate about the issues and the organization’s response to them will be essential for those who want to be seen the way they think they’re showing up.

Coach’s Questions:

Which HR trends resonate for you? Were there any HR trends that were new ideas for you? Which items do you feel your organization needs to get a jump on right away? What have we missed in our forecast?




How to manage change in your organization

Change in your organization is inevitable. How well leaders manage change is critical.

As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, managing new government regulations can require a rapid response (and ongoing realignment!). We’ve also seen companies introduce new products, technologies and adapt to working remotely.

Even before the pandemic, with its seemingly never-ending changes, many companies would undertake minor organizational changes annually – and significant changes approximately every five years or so.

Change is hard for a lot of folks, even if it’s positive. When you have to manage change in your organization, it’s not unusual to encounter resistance – ranging from team members balking at anything new to actively trying to undermine it – especially if there are unexpected challenges or the timeline is longer than anticipated.

There are a variety of reasons why folks resist change in the workplace. These include:

  • Fearing that the change is a loss (to them or the organization) greater than what they will gain from it
  • Not understanding what is changing and reacting due to a misunderstanding
  • Lacking trust in whomever is initiating the change (or they might dislike the person in charge of the change)
  • Bowing to peer pressure to resist change
  • Deciding that it’s the wrong move for the organization
  • Resisting change because they worry they won’t be able to acquire new skills or develop new competencies

It’s human nature to dislike change (especially if it feels like it’s too much, too quick or unnecessary). What we see is that some personalities struggle much more than others to accept organizational change.

There are a few important steps that help you or your managers successfully implement change in your organization:

  • Determine a vision for the change. Where do you want to end up when the change is complete? What will your company or business look like when you’ve achieved this change? Without a clear vision, the result is often experimenting to try to get it right – which is simply not as effective as having a set vision with its accompanying timeline and metrics.
  • Figure out your high-level plan. You must have a strategy to achieve the outcome that you desire. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be well articulated (one page often suffices). Pre-planning should consider things like: Who needs to be involved to design the change? Whose cooperation is critical? Who will be affected and how? What actions are needed to support the change? How will you integrate different roles or departments – the operational, financial and human resource-related elements? How quickly does this change need to be implemented?
  • Conduct a feasibility assessment. This requires a two-pronged approach of considering both the technical and cultural feasibility of the change. Often leaders focus on whether they have the technical capability to implement the change and will hire consultants if they don’t. But it’s just as important to ask yourself, “Are there cultural norms or ways that our organization works that might be barriers to success?” Involving those who are resistant to the change (or who you anticipate will be resistant) in the design stage can be very beneficial, particularly if they feel their concerns or issues are heard and considered valuable.
  • Coach for conflict. Our Padraig coaches work with leaders to help build conflict in the workplace (that’s right — build it!). Healthy conflict is conflict around ideas and direction (not around personalities), and it is a sign of a strong team. It is essential to managing organizational change. Conflict will occur during the process, so talk with your team members about how to approach debate, conflicting ideas and other issues that may arise.
  • Communicate. When trying to get buy-in on ideas or change, communicate well to everyone. You’ll need to share why the change is necessary and share evidence (the logic or reasons for it) to educate everyone involved and/or affected. This could include discussions, reports or an internal campaign to rollout the change. It’s better to communicate more frequently because otherwise people make assumptions (and typically assume the worst). Listening to understand is a big part of communication and provides the opportunity to understand any resistance. A really helpful tool we use a fair bit with coaching clients is the RACI model (we explain it in more detail further down in this post). The RACI model connects people to the vision and strategy for change, notably those who need to be consulted or informed about a project or particular tasks related to a project.
    Pro-tip: Communication in this case doesn’t include trying to surreptitiously influence folks with select information (which is manipulation) or co-opting key folks with the promise of a particular role in the process or in future. It can be tempting for some managers to try to influence people in these ways but any support gained through these methods is generally short-lasting. Conversely, involving people in meaningful ways will frequently help them commit to or even embrace change.
  • Facilitate support for team members. If new skills are going to be required, provide adequate training. If there is an intense period of implementing change and adjusting to it, consider providing paid time off to rest or to enjoy an activity (educational or recreational) away from the office. In some cases, providing a mentor or team lead to help team members adjust and offer emotional support can be very beneficial.

Change in your organization may be hard, especially when team members react poorly, resources are strained or the circumstances are ever-changeable. But with the right approach, leaders and managers have the ability to facilitate change in positive and supportive ways.

RACI Explained

The RACI model is a project management tool that can be very effective when you need to make sure that there is clear communication across the business or company about a project and an opportunity for key stakeholders to contribute. It is used to organize your project and the various phases or steps with a focus on mapping out a matrix of all the tasks for a project and who is:

Responsible: The person or team assigned to do the work of completing a task or deliverable is designated Responsible. It can be one person or several people. Typically those designated Responsible are on the project team – they could be developers or in creative roles.

Accountable: The “boss” or leader is designated Accountable because they are assigning the work or task and guiding the direction of it. Sometimes this is confusing because Responsible comes before Accountable in the acronym. Remember that the Accountable person (and there is ideally only one person and no more per element or task) will not only delegate and understand the expectation of the project, but also review the work and ensure it is completed on time. One Accountable Manager could have a number of different people and/or teams reporting to them on different projects. And an individual or team responsible for a number of projects could be reporting to a different Accountable Manager for each one.

Consulted: Those designated Consulted on a RACI matrix are selected because their input and feedback on the work is valuable and necessary (even though they might not be working on the task in question). They are stakeholders in the outcome of the project and need to be identified ahead of starting the task so that those Responsible have their input beforehand. Ideally this is limited to only appropriate and essential stakeholders so the process doesn’t get bogged down unnecessarily. Think about those folks who are in different departments or functional roles that could be affected. Sometimes external clients would be in this category. There are sometimes tasks or milestones in project planning that do not require a Consulted party but most projects will require Consultation with someone at some point.

Informed: Anyone who needs to know what’s going on because their work will be affected – but who does not need to provide input – can be designated Informed. These Informed folks should be updated with the progress of the related task and the project as it progresses. Often this includes senior leadership or peer managers of departments or teams that will be affected by the project.

When you create a RACI chart, the various tasks for a project are listed down the left-hand column. Then the RACI acronym stakeholders are listed across the top row. As you work through each task while planning the project, you assign the level of involvement (R, A, C or I) for each stakeholder.

It’s important to acknowledge that the RACI chart demonstrates what should happen but it still relies on good relationships, trust and good conflict around ideas to help the project succeed.

We help leaders build stronger teams with the COACH Approach to leadership and with our Five Behaviours of a Cohesive Team program. Having a stronger team makes it easier to manage change in your organization.

Coach’s Questions:

How do you feel about managing change in your organization? What challenges have you faced? What can you do differently to facilitate organizational change?



Help your managers turn difficult conversations into Essential Conversations

When leaders or HR managers walk through the office and feel tension, it’s a concern. Has there been a confrontation? Outburst? Hurt feelings?

Sometimes it’s not what has been said, but what hasn’t. Difficult conversations are easy to put off, which often leads to resentment, hurt and growing tension.

It’s human nature to avoid things that are uncomfortable. In the workplace, this can mean hoping that if you ignore the situation, things will get better or that someone will pick up on hints and change. Just thinking about telling someone their work has been subpar or that they offended you (or someone else) can be very stressful – especially if the personalities involved will react poorly. Who wants to stir things up more or get yelled at?

And yet, as much as we’d like to look the other way or agree to disagree, the reality is that leaders everywhere and across all industries must:

  • Address poor job performance
  • Struggle with a board or boss
  • Deal with bad behaviours by staff
  • Negotiate with stakeholders or clients
  • Broach conversations around power and privilege

Folks can easily convince themselves to forget about it for now and wait. “Maybe if I ignore it, it will clear up on its own.” I’ve thought it myself, more than once. But you know what? From my own experience and from thousands of hours of coaching conversations our team has had with leaders in all sorts of industries, I can honestly tell you – it won’t. It never does. The issue may appear to go away but in fact, in the silence, the issues fester. They don’t magically disappear. Avoiding conflict only seems to work for a time – until frustrations grow, resentments build and tempers flare unexpectedly.

Have you ever snapped in anger over something trivial? Or seen someone else lose it over something small, and suddenly pour out weeks (or months? years?) of other frustrations in a verbal tidal wave of fury?

Difficult conversations are something that our Padraig leadership coaches like to reframe as essential.

We like to help leaders understand how destructive workplace conflict affects everyone on the team. There are many unhealthy behaviours that become patterns. Things like triangulation, stonewalling, sarcasm – and avoiding difficult conversations.

Unresolved tensions are stressful for everyone, from those involved to bystanders and their managers. It’s a waste of time and damages morale as well as productivity. In worst-case scenarios, you end up with a toxic workplace culture and people leaving as soon as they can find positions elsewhere.

The goal is to help teams learn how to build healthy, productive conflict. Yes, you read that right! Highly successful teams have solid foundations of trust and are able to discuss and debate ideas, share different viewpoints and address concerns as they arise.

We like to use a model that helps folks learn how to have difficult conversations. Our approach is based on several other well-respected models, including those presented in Susan Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations and Kerry Patterson’s book, Crucial Conversations.

For our Essential Conversations, we have combined what we like from those models and incorporated ideas and strategies that we’ve learned over the years that we’ve worked with senior leaders and executives. Using a series of steps, it’s possible to prepare, address and resolve issues in respectful and healthy ways.

If you’re responsible for guiding managers in your organization through difficult conversations and awkward situations, you may find this helpful.

The first step to resolving conflict is understanding why conflict happens. Personality styles, communication problems and even poor leadership can be exacerbating factors. When we know the WHY, we can work on ways to actively resolve it.

When you need to have a difficult conversation about any issue, it’s important to ensure that:

  • the concern is detailed and clearly shared,
  • everyone’s emotions are understood,
  • the desired outcome is clear, and
  • those involved commit to a solution.

It helps to make certain that everyone involved has the opportunity to share concerns and feel heard. Our steps facilitate ways to describe each person’s perspective and feelings, striving for everyone to understand and be understood.

Coach’s Questions:

What conflicts regularly arise? What would happen if leaders and team members were equipped with ways to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations? How could your organization benefit from productive conflict?

Are there conversations that you know are needed and necessary that aren’t happening? We can help. Learn more about our team workshop, where we help you, other leaders and team members learn how to have Essential Conversations.

Additionally, there are simple shifts that help to resolve conflict. We now offer an online, live course that is devoted to productive conflict that is ideal for leaders, managers, supervisors and employees.





Signs of overwork in your organization

For years there have been countless articles written about the need for work-life balance. It’s a seemingly never-ending problem.

As leaders, we want our teams to be productive and challenged. What is too much work and how do you know? Do you see signs of overwork?

It can be especially challenging for leaders new to a role – who want to prove they are capable and produce results – to assess. Or, if the organization is proud of having a hustle culture, leaders might fail to see the tipping point when relentless long hours begin to hinder productivity and morale.

Are you expecting too much? Too little? Are your team members flourishing as they deliver great things or are you ignoring signs of burnout? Or, perhaps, are you exhausted and struggling to lead an exhausted team?

Obviously, there are times in all organizations that we need folks to work overtime to finish up a big project or get a new campaign off the ground – but that is different from an expectation of working late and weekends for prolonged periods.

Signs of overwork.

Here are some of the things to watch for:

Shifts in attitude and tone. One of the biggest signs of overwork is formerly happy and focused team members who become bitter, cynical and irritable. Have you witnessed any angry outbursts? Does the general mood seem tense and unhappy? Do you notice staff saying they can’t do more work? Listen when people express frustration or concern about managing deadlines. Is it a legitimate concern? Are there other team members who seem to be avoiding you or other leaders? It might be that they have learned that if they aren’t in front of you, they won’t get tasked with more work. Are you hearing critical messages about work or others on the team? If your company does employee engagement surveys and you see satisfaction dropping, analyze why because it might be burnout.

Consistently long hours. As a leader, keep an eye on the average work week for your team. Is everyone working more than 50 hours a week? Are key people working late nights and weekends? Workplace studies have demonstrated that productivity starts to suffer when people work more than 49 hours a week. Have you heard about Henry Ford’s role in the 40-hour work week? He realized that giving workers in his automobile manufacturing company two-day weekends instead of one-day weekends (as was the norm at the time) made them MORE productive. It might be time for another Henry Ford to do a similar analysis with knowledge workers.

Higher rates of sick days and unused vacation days. There is a connection between feelings of burnout and health, so it’s not surprising that one of the signs of overwork is employees taking higher numbers of sick days. At the same time, staff who fail to use their allotted vacation time might be skipping holidays because they feel they can’t leave their workload. When you see staff who consistently work long hours, take more sick days than usual – but don’t take their vacation days – there’s a good chance that they are overworked.

Poor employee retention. One Fortune 500 company routinely boasted that they worked hard but they played hard. Guess what? Big salaries, bonuses and bar nights didn’t keep top performers long once they realized they had to work 14 hour days and give up most of their weekends. When those overworked high performers started losing family and friends, they left. Take note if you have high turnover in your department – overwork could be the cause.

Trouble disconnecting. We’ve got the technology to be available 24 hours a day now, but that doesn’t mean we should be. Pay attention to things like email timestamps. Are people always online? Are they up working in the wee hours after a full day? What about weekends or when they’re supposed to be on vacation? Do you or other leaders reach out to people after hours or when they’re on holiday? Is it possible that you’re cultivating or contributing to a culture that doesn’t value time away from work? Sometimes it’s a habit to check email constantly or to be responsive (and some folks actually begin to thrive on the stress hormones, perhaps unknowingly). As leaders, we need to encourage and model healthier ways to work.

A strong sense of being unproductive. When we’re burnt out, we’re tired and can’t focus as well, which makes everything seem harder at work and at home. When you hear team members expressing that they just can’t focus, that they’re not sleeping well, that they’re stressed or that they’re concerned they’re not keeping up, do a little digging to see what’s going on. It’s possible that they are overworked and need a break – and a realignment of their workflow.

The spark has gone out. When people are overworked and burned out, they lose their passion. This is when creativity suffers and productivity drops. Work can be hard and challenging but when it becomes a grind that requires sacrificing a personal life and even health, that’s overwork.

Why is overwork a concern?

As we’ve discussed which signs indicate possible overwork in your organization, you can see the consequences of overworking employees are multifold.

You’ll see poor health, and with ongoing problems, you’ll even see the kinds of more serious concerns that result from chronic stress (like heart disease or depression). Productivity and creativity are adversely affected, as are the relationships on the team.

Being overworked, unhappy and exhausted is not good for employee morale and building strong work relationships and that means it isn’t good for organizational success, either. Resentments build, the quality of work suffers and people leave to find work elsewhere. In extreme cases, overwork creates a very toxic work culture.

Here’s what to do when you see signs of overwork:

Figure out what’s happening. Is this self-imposed by a team member who mistakenly believes being a workaholic is admirable? Or is this a broader issue? Can the workload be adjusted? Does the workplace culture need some work? Are you also trying to prevent leadership burnout for yourself? Setting the example, good or bad, reaches far into your organization.

Start the discussion about balance. Set goals with the people on your team for a cutoff time. This could be turning off everything related to work (including cell phone) by a certain time or, in flex work situations, after a certain number of hours a day or week. Clearly state that you expect your team members to take a lunch break and coffee break, as well as vacation time in full. Encourage people to book time off and make time for personal pursuits (try opening meetings with casual conversations about hobbies, holidays or even TV shows people have enjoyed after hours). Help your team understand how to regain control amid all the busyness of life.

Walk the talk. As a leader, your actions matter. If you say that you expect people to take lunch but you eat at your desk as you read reports, what will happen? Delegate effectively and really unplug when you go on vacation so that those who report to you learn to do the same. Encourage people to take time away from work and enjoy their off hours.

Vary the workload for your team. Often we give the complex spreadsheets or challenging clients to the same folks. What about setting up a mentorship situation, where the more experienced team member oversees someone less experienced? It’s a challenge for the more junior person and, especially in time, will allow for more sharing of the workload. Check with your team members to see what variety they would enjoy and consider how they could contribute or collaborate in different ways. Would they feel excited about an opportunity or would it be too much pressure? What would help them stay on track and learn new things?

Consider flexible work arrangements. During the pandemic, we’ve seen how well companies can do when employees have a say in their work schedules. We’ve learned some good lessons about working remotely. Allowing remote work or flex hours can greatly alleviate stress for many employees, especially if they have young children, aging parents or health concerns.

Keep your focus on results rather than time. We know now that there isn’t a correlation between more hours spent working and productivity or success. Be sure to evaluate your team for their performance rather than long hours. When we switch to valuing results, employees will work toward goals instead of just ensuring they get enough hours on the clock.

It’s valuable to take time to figure out the workload for your team.

You want their work to be challenging (but a stretch, not a strain) – and enough that they’re busy without being crushed, overwhelmed and burned out. When you reach that sweet spot of exciting work assignments that keep everyone motivated and enjoying their assignments, it’s easier to ask folks to rally and pitch in a little more once in a while.

Coach’s Questions

Are there signs of burnout on your team? Are you personally overworked? What can you do to address signs of overwork in your organization?