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Shields Down

Resignations happen in a moment, and it’s not when you declare, “I’m resigning.” The moment happened a long time ago when you received a random email from a good friend who asked, “I know you’re really happy with your current gig because you’ve been raving about it for a year, but would you like to come visit Our Company? No commitment. Just coffee.”

Now, everyone involved in this conversation transaction is aware of what is going down. While there is certainly no commitment, there is a definitely an agenda. The reason they want you to visit The Company is because, of course, they want you there in the building because seeing a potential future is far more compelling than describing it.

Still, seeing it isn’t the moment of resignation. The moment happened the instant you decided, “What the hell? I haven’t seen Don in months and it’d be good to see him.”

Your shields are officially down.

A Potential Future

Your shields drop the moment you let a glimpse of a potential different future into your mind. It seems like a unconsidered off-the-cuff thought sans consequence, but the thought opens you to possibilities that did not exist the moment before the thought existed.

What is incredibly slippery about this moment is the complex, nuanced, and instant mental math performed that precedes the shields-down situation. When you are indirectly asked to lower your shields, you immediately parse, place a value, and aggregate your opinions on the following:

  • Am I happy with my job?
  • Do I like my manager? My team?
  • Is this project I’m working on fulfilling?
  • Am I learning?
  • Am I respected?
  • Am I growing?
  • Do I feel fairly compensated?
  • Is this company/team going anywhere?
  • Do I believe in the vision?
  • Do I trust the leaders?

Now, each human has a different prioritized subset of this list that they rank and value differently. Growth is paramount for some, truth for others. Whatever unique blend is important, you use that blend and ask yourself one final question as you consider lowering your shields. What has happened recently or in the past that either supports or detracts from what I value?

The answer to that question determines whether your shields stay up or go down.

Humans Never Forget

As a leader of humans, I’ve watched sadly as valued co-workers have resigned. Each time I work to understand two things:

  1. Why are they leaving?
  2. When did their shields go down?

In most cases, the answers to Question #1 are rehearsed and clear. It’s the question they’ve been considering and asking themselves, so their answers are smooth.

  • I’m looking for a smaller company where I can have more impact.
  • I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens.
  • I want to work somewhere more established where I can dig my teeth into one hard problem.

These answers are fine, but they aren’t the complete reason why they are leaving. It’s the politically correct answer that is designed to easily answer the most obvious question. The real question, the real insight, comes from the answer to Question #2: When did their shields go down?

Their shields drop when, in the moment they are presented with the offer of potential future opportunity, they quickly evaluate their rubric and make an instant call: Is this job meeting my bar?

To find and understand this shields-down moment, I ask, “When did you start looking?” Often the answers are a vague, “It kind’a just happened. I wasn’t really looking. I’m really happy here.”

Bullshit.

If I’m sitting here talking with you it means two things: I don’t want you to leave and, to the best of my knowledge, you didn’t want to leave either but here you are leaving. It didn’t just happen. You chose. Maybe you weren’t looking, but once your shields dropped, you started looking. Happy people don’t leave jobs they love.

The reason this reads cranky is because I, the leader of the humans, screwed up. Something in the construction of the team or the company nudged you at a critical moment. When that mail arrived gently asking you about coffee, you didn’t answer the way you answered the prior five similar mails with a brief, “Really happy here. Let’s get a drink some time!” You think you thought Hmmm… what the hell. It can’t hurt. What you actually thought or realized was:

  • You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here.
  • Getting yelled at two days ago still stings.
  • I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says.

Often you’ve forgotten this original thought in your subsequent intense job deliberations, but when I ask, when I dig, I usually find a basic values violation that dug in, stuck, and festered. Sometimes it’s a major values violation from months ago. Sometimes it’s a small violation that occurred at the worst possible time. In either case, your expectations of your company and your job were not met and when faced with opportunity elsewhere, you engaged.

It’s Not Just Boredom

I covered a major contributor to shield drops in Bored People Quit. Boredom in its many forms is a major contributor to resignations, but the truth is the list of contributing factors to shield weakening is immense. When you combine this with the near constant increasing demand for talented humans, you’ve got a complex leadership situation.

The reason I’m cranky is I’m doing the math. I’m placing a cost on the departure of a wanted human leaving and comparing that cost with whatever usually minor situation existed in the past that led to a shields-down situation. The departure cost is always exponentially higher.

My advice is similarly frustrating. Strategies to prevent shields dropping are as numerous as the reasons shields drop in the first place. I’ve discovered shield drops after the fact with close co-workers whom I met with for a 1:1 every single week where I felt we were covering topics of substance; where I felt I understood what they valued and how they wanted to grow.

I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens. Two months ago, someone told them their project was likely to be canceled. It wasn’t.

You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here. At the end of last month, she heard via the grapevine that she wasn’t going to be promoted. When she got the promotion she deserved, it was too late.

I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says. At the last All Hands, I blew off a question with a terse answer because I didn’t want to dignify gossip. I forgot there is signal even in gossip.

Every moment as a leader is an opportunity to either strengthen or weaken shields. Every single moment.

Happy New Year.

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