When you start to understand work as a relationship, it starts to raise some interesting questions that you may not have asked before. For example, how does our comfort with being vulnerable impact how willing or able we are to “engage?”
When I reflect on the relationships in my life and all of the stories I’ve heard from friends about their own relationships, a common barrier I notice to a healthy relationship is the fear of getting hurt.
People can be careless in their relationships with others. When someone close hurts you, it leaves an emotional scar. When a lover breaks your heart, or worse, a parent hurts you in any way, the damage can run deep and be lasting.
If your past is full of relationships that ended in hurt and disappointment, it’s natural that you’d start trying to protect yourself. You’d play defense, not letting yourself get too exposed or too invested in any particular relationship. After all, the less invested you are, the less likely you are to be devastated if that person lets you down or leaves you.
Looking in the mirror, I recognize a weird contradiction. Perhaps because I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve always been able to be open and vulnerable in personal relationships. With romantic relationships or friendships, I seem to have always been comfortable going all in quickly. As a result, today I have an amazing life partner in Angie and so many who I consider to be great friends.
But on the employment side, it’s been quite the opposite. And now that I reflect on it, it’s probably warranted. I’ve written a lot about the progression of bad jobs I had on my journey. In nearly every case, I felt hurt and harmed in some way in the end.
I can only remember one time in my career when I feel I was fully engaged. And then at the peak of my engagement, the company was sold. I spent the next twenty months watching the organization I loved being torn apart. It was, for me, a soul-crushing twenty months.
Along the way, I learned to play defense. Don’t get too attached because sooner or later, something bad is going to happen and I’ll be on my way to the next thing. Every time it happened, I became harder to engage at work. I became the equivalent of a serial dater in the employment world.
We don’t talk about this side of the employee engagement equation enough. How does your employees’ past work relationships affect the degree to which they are even willing to engage with you?
Most employers are still not very good at creating an engaging work experience. And there are A LOT of bad managers out there. That means that most of the people you employ have a history of bad work relationships.
They know if they get too vulnerable and attached, that will only lead to being hurt. So, they play defense. They give only what is required. They stay guarded.
If you have ever been in a relationship with someone like this, who’s been hurt in the past, you know that to break through takes time. You can’t force someone to let their guard down and be more vulnerable. They must make that choice. And they will only make that choice once they know it’s safe.
When they know they can trust you.
This is why trust is so important to employee engagement. A good, healthy relationship of any type is built on trust. There is no substitute.
One of the best and most direct ways to build trust is to first extend it.
If you are a manager, how do you show your employees that you trust them? Do you give your employees autonomy and flexibility to do their work? Or do you justify following up frequently about progress and micromanaging their time? If you’ve had employees let you down in the past, you are probably playing defense in your current relationships with employees. That’s likely holding your employees back from fully engaging with and for you.
If you are an HR leader, take a look at your policies and processes. Do they convey to employees that you trust them? In most cases, HR policies are written to protect the company from employee behavior and choices. That’s the organization playing defense in the relationship (“We’ve been hurt by employees in the past, so we are going to make sure you can’t hurt us.”). That’s not a great invitation to a healthy, long-term relationship.
When an employee lets you down, forgive them. Give them a second chance. And don’t hold it against all future employees.
Trust first. Trust often.