As the young man ducked his head getting into the elevator, I recognized him immediately as a new face on my favorite pro basketball team. I don’t seek out celebrity sightings and have never asked for an autograph, but like most people, I think it’s fun to see someone in person that you’ve watched on television.
I couldn’t help ask him about the dismal circumstances of his team. “You must have been thrilled to be drafted by such a legendary franchise to play with the most winning coach in history,” I began. “But what’s it like now that he’s been replaced with a different coach, to have a losing record, and to learn this week that your teammate, who was known as the heart of the squad, has been traded to a conference rival?”
After a pause, where he must have been considering the risks of being honest, he told me, “It’s hard. You tell yourself it’s just a game and have fun. But, it’s also a business and my life and livelihood. My family depends on me.”
“How do you keep up the physical and mental energy needed to be a professional athlete under these circumstances?”
As the elevator stopped at the lobby, he shook his head as he ducked getting out, and said, “To tell you the truth, you stop playing for the name on the front of your jersey and you play for the name on your back.”
Of course, on the front of the jersey is the team’s name. On the back of the jersey is your own name.
I often think of that promising young player, caught in a situation he couldn’t navigate effectively. Currently, he’s playing on teams overseas, unable to take advantage of his untapped potential in the NBA.
I was reminded of this chance encounter again last week. I was on a coaching call, listening to an employee describe changes going on in her organization and how her sales territory is being rearranged and her clients being parceled out among other reps. I asked how she was handling her frustration, and she said, “I’m just playing for the name on the back of my jersey, not the front.”
My heart sank. I could hear the anguish in her voice. It is in our human nature to thrive through meaningful work in concert with like-minded people. Feeling alienated or unable to trust her tribe was threatening her sense of well-being.
As leaders, we need to help employees understand the reasons for their anguish. Then, we need to help them satisfy their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Employees can’t thrive when their psychological needs are thwarted at work. When employees don’t thrive, they suffer–and so does the organization. Disengaged employees, who are so overwhelmed by circumstances that they simply give up and begin looking after their own best interests, are costing organizations billions of dollars every year.
As our coaching call continued, three lessons emerged that might help you deal with a disenfranchised employee.
- This employee’s sense of autonomy was nonexistent. She felt she had no control over the changes “being done to” her. My question to her was, “What do you have control over?” We identified three areas of her role where her choices would make a difference in the quality of her experience.
- She felt her sense of relatedness with the organization was compromised. She didn’t trust her company or the reasons for the changes being made. When I asked her why, she replied, “The changes are unfair.” Nothing erodes an employee’s psychological need for relatedness like injustice. My question to her was, “Have you discussed why the changes are taking place with your manager? Have you asked for a rationale so you can understand the reasons for the changes?” She admitted she had not. Should her leader have provided the rationale for change? Sure. But, even the best-intentioned leaders usually share an organizational perspective. People need a personal rationale–they need to understand why the changes are “being done to” them, their job, role, and world. I encouraged her to be a self-leader and seek out the answers she needed. With information in hand, she could then determine if the reasons for the changes were unjust or just unclear.
- The employee’s sense of competence was diminished because she didn’t know how to navigate through ambiguity and uncertainty. But, she realized that identifying ways to refocus her autonomy and relatedness needs already made her feel more confident about moving forward.
I will continue tracking her progress. My hope is to hear about the success and flourishing that both she and her organization experience as she plays for more than the name on the back of her jersey.