“I don’t get it,” my friend Stacey said after a mutual friend ended a long-term relationship. “They seemed really happy.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t think I ever saw them fight.”
It was true. Not only did the couple in question never seem to argue, they never even bickered. And so naturally, we were all surprised when my friends broke up. But, as it turned out, that was part of the problem. They had both mentally checked out of the relationship. The couple had drifted apart, and so instead of working out their issues, they simply went with the flow — and not in a good way.
What appeared on the outside to be a harmonious situation was, in reality, two people being polite instead of being honest. It was a concept that seemed to perplex my younger self — who thought that a healthy relationship was one that involved zero conflict — but that now makes total sense. Of course there is such thing as too much fighting, but I believe a truly good relationship isn’t completely free of dissent. A good relationship is one where both parties feel comfortable voicing their concerns, standing up for their beliefs, and hashing out those disagreements.
It made me think of another significant relationship in our lives: the work family. It’s very similar in that while you don’t want constant bickering — which can hinder productivity, and you don’t want a situation in which a manager’s every move is being criticized, you also don’t want an environment in which no one speaks their mind. To me, that’s just as bad, because if the staff never disagrees with or even questions their superior, it’s for one of two reasons:
1. They’re scared of being fired. This happens when a culture is dictated by fear, forcing everyone to either agree with the manager, or worse, say nothing. In a recent blog, Chris Walden, CIO at HealthAlliance Hospital, recalled a discussion he had several years ago with a higher-up who asked for his honest opinion. Walden gave it, and not only did his boss appreciate it, but he told him something that still resonates: “There is so much freedom when you lose the fear of being fired.” And it’s losing that fear that can help people to shift their focus from simply having a job to that of adding value.
On the flip side, without that freedom, without that autonomy, you can end up with a bunch of robots — and not the cool ones that go on Jeopardy. And then there’s another reason why a staff member might never speak up.
2. They’re checked out. They won’t question the way anything is done and they won’t fight for what they believe in, because they don’t care. They’ve lost all motivation and are just going through the motions. This situation, I believe, is the one you really have to look out for, because having someone on the team who’s burnt out won’t just hurt productivity; it will destroy it. In this case, you’re not even getting a robot. You’re getting a void.
The best way to avoid this —or at least to be able to identify someone who has checked out — is to check in through constant communication, whether it’s team meetings, quick huddles, or just stopping in to say a quick hello. A good leader will be able to tell right away if there’s someone on your staff who has lost his or her fight, and decide whether the relationship can be salvaged, or if it’s simply time to make a clean break.