Five signs your team is quietly quitting

There are practices experiencing high turnover despite their best efforts to retain their team members

Things are changing in the clinic, and many of our best employees are preparing to leave. Here is a look at some of the signs of team members who are quietly disengaging.

Sign No. 1

Often, employees are operating in survival mode, which is exhausting and can lead to quitting.
Often, employees are operating in survival mode, which is exhausting and can lead to quitting.

Your once very engaged team seems to do the bare minimum. We may be seeing team members who clock in on time and clock out right on time. They may be doing exactly what it takes to get the job done, but nothing more. This can be physical of course, but also emotional.

I have never been a fan of having our team members work beyond their hours for no pay as a sign of their undying loyalty to the practice. I am merely pointing out their behavioral changes may be symptomatic. We may be seeing a decrease in their passion or their willingness to contribute additional ideas that would build the practice. They are not interested in building anything additional because it just means more work.

Have you noticed team meetings where leadership lectures a rally cry of “let’s just get through this,” “let’s build the practice,” “let’s do better,” all to get crickets from the team? This type of rah-rah approach is coming across as tone-deaf to the needs of the team at this point.

Sign No. 2

Team members who were once positive about weathering the storm have given up. This kind of emotional reaction to prolonged stress is called the “Stockdale Paradox.” This paradox was named after Admiral James Stockdale in the book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.

Admiral Stockdale was shot down during the Vietnam War and held as a prisoner for seven years. He was the ranking officer among the captives, so he also took emotional leadership of the situation. He began to watch his men and tried to determine who would make it and who would not.

Stockdale began noticing the optimists lost the will to survive first. They would put all their belief and faith that their trials and tribulations would be over in a few months. Then, when it was not over, they would reset their timeline. They would put all their faith in a new timeline of when they would be rescued, and this timeline would come and go, as well. They lost hope.

As an organization, we may be giving false hope and pinning our faith on when things return to “normal,” like there will be this day the switch gets flipped and we are all better. It is the optimism failing us. As leaders, perpetuating this false positivity in the hopes of rallying the troops is actually causing more harm. The timelines will continue to pass, and we will continue to see we are not going back to what we had before.

Sign No. 3

Team members have disconnected from the practice values. Instead of leaning on the mission, vision, and value statements of the practice, they are operating in survival mode. Survival mode as defined by LeMar Moore in a blog post titled, Survival Mode Is Killing You is, “Survival mode is the short-term, fear-based mode of thinking you enter when your fight-or-flight response is triggered. It is the poisonous mentality that leads you to attack or retreat during stressful times rather than communicate and embrace.”

This survival mode is meant for very short time periods. I encourage you to read this blog post. The descriptions of survival mode and the behaviors associated with it really align with what we are seeing in veterinary medicine today. LeMar shared another point that happens every day in the practice we as leaders sometimes fail to recognize. “Survival mode thinkers, being in an unspoken state of fear, constantly compare themselves to people around them. Comparing yourself to another person can only end with you either looking down on yourself, or you looking down on the other person, both of which are poisonous acts.”

This type of comparison is very dangerous within practices currently dealing with negative cultures. This survival mode thinking leads us to the next sign your team may be quietly quitting.

Sign No. 4

Team members are desensitized to people quitting because they have already been working in an environment of picking up the slack for other people who have either quit, or for other team members who are so disengaged and are now toxic.

The team members who pick up the slack are used to missing out on those additional skill sets and resources from team members who left. They may even appear to be unconcerned or unfazed by the news someone else quit. They have emotionally adapted to the news, but mentally they are reducing their own work output and balancing their energy again just to survive the day.

This looks and sounds like, “let’s just do what we have to do to get through the day” “or “we’ve already been working short staffed so who cares if one more goes.” Unfortunately, when this mantra is repeated daily, it becomes the cultural norm.

This is also the age of the toxic team member. Now is their time to enjoy their best lives. Their jobs and work experiences just got good. Looking at all the over-achieving, happily engaged employees finally lowering their work standards to match those of their own long-standing low standards—what’s not to like?

Now toxic team members do not have to work so hard to blend in and hide since most, if not all, team members are working at their new adjusted survival mode standards. The irony is the toxic team members probably are not looking for a new job somewhere else. Why should they? They have successfully rewritten their own job descriptions for the practice—do the bare minimum—and continue to be disengaged, further affecting the others who want to be engaged.

We see all too often these negative toxic team members getting more attention from leadership just to keep the peace. It is good for the entire team to keep conflict to a minimum, right? When I think about what we do as managers just to accommodate toxic team members, I think of the sport of curling. We spend a great deal of energy and effort to polish the way for this big lumbering stone to make its way slowly and inefficiently down the ice without anything getting in its way to cause problems.

If we distract the toxic team members, taking the brunt of the nonsense and sparing our team, we are doing the right thing, right? This obviously has a powerful effect on the ones positively engaged. Who is polishing the ice for them? They see the squeaky wheel getting the grease and they are overlooked for the work they are doing. If you are looking for the fastest way to demoralize a team, you found it.

Sign No. 5

Your team members are sick, burned out, or have increased attendance issues. During the height of COVID, we saw a tremendous amount of absenteeism due to illness. The slightest sniffle or cough landed most of us in quarantine for 10 to 14 days. This has waned, and now we are returning to the norm of our previous attendance expectations. Unfortunately, there are still no consistent rules at this point for handling illness and absenteeism.

There may be a divide between what managers are expecting in returning to our previous attendance expectations and what team members are willing to work through when feeling ill or having sick children. There is tremendous pressure to care for sick children who are not allowed at school or daycare.

There is still a significant amount of fear around working with someone who is feeling sick. Although we may understand the virus is not as deadly, it is still extremely disruptive and time-consuming to a household passing it from family member to family member.

What we can do about it

The practice leadership who was agile enough to understand their own workload stresses and experiences, as well as truly understand and adapt to the needs of their teams, fared a little better.

There are practices experiencing high turnover despite their best efforts to retain their team members. This is because people are people. We were not built to sustain long-term stress, trauma, and working in survival mode for long periods. Everyone on the team has been in survival mode to some extent. For some, fixing their circumstances requires change. This could be a change in job, a change in role, a change in focus, a change in priority.

  • Limit comparison between “us and them.” Comparing the stress and value of the experiences amongst team members is harmful. Comparing the strain of owning a practice to a team member who has childcare issues is not on the same planet, much less the same universe. Take care when minimizing your team’s experiences and placing a grading scale on the effects of the stress they may be feeling when compared to your own.
  • Be aware of how you respond when a toxic team member does something good. Do not be tempted to over-reward the team member for doing what others have been doing all along.
  • Balance realism and optimism. It takes courage to face reality. The reality is we will never work in an environment like what existed prior to 2020. It just is not going to happen. We will never work in an environment like what we had yesterday either—it is in the past. Working with your teams to face this reality and rewrite what it looks like for the practice, the management style, the roles within the practice, the job descriptions, the expectations, the culture, and the individual person will encourage acceptance and growth.
  • Be authentic and vulnerable. Share how you feel. Embrace the hard truth that we do not know what is going to happen and the frustration of feeling like we should. As leaders, we are answer people, and in this we do not have answers. Despite not having answers, you will still prevail in this current situation.

As a parting thought, I will share a another quote from Good to Great: “Every good-to-great company embraced what we came to call the ‘Stockdale Paradox:’ you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Rhonda Bell, CVPM, CCFP, CDMP, is founder and co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, a social media and brand management company. She spent 15 years as a practice manager working the day to day challenges of the veterinary practice and experienced firsthand the stresses, joys, communication dilemmas, and wonders of working in veterinary medicine. She now dedicates her work and energy to helping practices succeed online and to coaching team members with the skills that will hopefully prolong their careers.

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