Have you just blown it with your star employee?

A friend and former colleague of mine recently shared with me a story (she called it a rant because she was quite upset at the time). She has been working on a project, putting in insane hours on weekends and in the evenings and has achieved remarkable results in a short time. She is a person who is highly intrinsically motivated and thrives on challenges and getting things done. Sadly, she has caught the awful flu that is going around this season, and called in sick… to be told she was “letting the team down”. She was disappointed and angry – her motivation and commitment had plummeted.

I’m sure my friend’s manager had no intention of creating that outcome. So what went wrong?

As leaders, it is easy to rely on the dedicated few to get things done. Every workplace has them. Known for their reliability and ability to deliver, they are often a leader’s first choice: “I’ll give that to Michelle, she always gets things done”.

What we often don’t pay attention to though, is just how much Michelle does and perhaps how little is being done by others in comparison…

And it is so very easy, if Michelle gets ill, or can’t take on a task, to jump to “She is letting me down”!

Take a deep breath at this point!

What will you achieve by verbalising that thought to Michelle? How will that make her feel? Will that make her more or less motivated?

You might feel that telling someone they are letting the team down will pull a values lever about teamwork and relationships. And it might work for some. But trust me, that doesn’t work on a high achiever.

All you have done is blow your credibility as a leader (in Michelle’s eyes) because you don’t get what motivates her.

And really, the person who has let the team down is you – because you allowed yourself and the team to become so dependent on one person.

Spend some time reflecting on why it has got to the point where one person taking a couple of days sick leave has created such a disaster for you. Are you allocating work fairly? What is the rest of the team doing? Do you need to go back to the project plan and reallocate your resources? If Michelle is a critical resource do you need a contingency plan for such occasions? Do you need to work more with the rest of the team, motivating them, coaching them?

And what might be a better response when Michelle calls in sick?


(What she needed to hear was short and to the point “I’m so sorry to hear that you are ill, let me know if there is anything outstanding that needs attention while you are away. Get well soon”)

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