Three A’s Signaling A Mental Checkout
A strong team has members who do their job well. When someone falls out of sync, it disrupts the entire project. Sometimes it’s unintentional, merely a transition issue. Other times, it’s very intentional, signaling a mental checkout. How would you know the difference?
I’ve been on both sides of this spectrum. I remember mentally checking out almost a year before I announced my resignation from a large brokerage firm. I began to hate my job.
The work I used to love had become a marathon of futility. I was running while being shackled by bureaucracy, propelled by the dangling carrot of achievement which, in reality, turned out to be merely money. I realized my role was that of “paid puppet.” Nevertheless, it was my job. So I still did what I had to do—and more—but now it was without enthusiasm. I felt like a robot, a mouthpiece.
On a positive note, it also made me brazen so I took some risks, made some good calls, and got great recognition from colleagues and clients. But it wasn’t enough to change my mind. My mental check-out was rooted in something much deeper. My frustration wore on my self-esteem and led to an inevitable resignation, with no regrets and no looking back.
On the flip side, I’ve seen others do the mental check-out and actually ruin projects I was deeply involved in.
A web design firm and an app design firm each embarked on two-week Mexican vacations after receiving large installments to finance development projects. This, despite launch dates looming just over the immediate horizon. Another example was sloppy and hasty artistic contributions on a publishing project. The poor quality of the work submitted was a shocking wake-up call to the other team members. In all these cases, a detachment and a lack of pride in their work were strong signals they’d already checked out of the project. As you can imagine, they were all terminated in short order.
When mental checkouts happen, they hurt both sides. No one really benefits from a lingering teammate who no longer wants to play the game. Mental checkouts leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth because of the negativity and disruption to work flow they introduce. There’s nothing wrong with realizing you’re in over your head, or you actually don’t like what you’re doing. But if you stop participating, yet continue to accept a paycheck, you’re playing a dangerous game with your own reputation.
The bottom line is: it’s best to physically check out soon after you’ve mentally checked out. As an employer or team leader, it’s not hard to pinpoint those who mentally leave a project. Strong signals are there, if you watch for them. If you are the one feeling a mental checkout building, there are ways to improve your situation without burning bridges.
The three strongest indicators of eroding morale, for me, all happen to begin with the letter A:
Apathy is the first sign: resigned detachment; lack of enthusiasm; dearth of ideas. The root of apathy may start when someone realizes they’re not qualified. The ethical thing to do is talk to the team and let them know your limitations. There might be another role for you. However, there are too many people, usually subcontractors, who mentally check out yet continue to misrepresent their skills just to nab a quick payday.
Having been on the receiving end of this, I can tell you it’s morally reprehensible and you won’t fool anyone for long. Also, it’s a small world and you can be sure those who are burned by you won’t shy away from revealing your misrepresentation to others. If, on the other hand, you’re quite qualified but no longer care for the work, communication is key. Most companies respect honesty, even if it means losing you or giving you a new position. At least your reputation will remain intact, if not soar, because you’ve shown pride and respect for the project or the company.
Absence comes next: not showing up to meetings, or canceling them outright; scheduling vacations at inopportune times. If it’s a subcontractor, they may jump to other projects and become difficult to contact. If it’s a salaried employee, the best thing to do is have a sit-down meeting. If it’s a sub, the best thing to do is stop payments. As a matter of principle, sub-contractors should only receive a minimum up front, the bulk being the carrot dangling at the end of successful completion. While this isn’t always possible, I’ve found those subs not willing to take delayed gratification probably won’t be giving you any immediate gratification either. They likely aren’t qualified and don’t deserve the job.
When I mentally checked out as a salaried employee in my previous career, I continued to show up every single day. I swallowed my frustration and did my best because I was still getting paid. In hindsight, I should have talked to my bosses and requested a transfer. The problem with my situation was, I was sick of the industry altogether. I showed up in spite of not wanting to because I still respected my company, my bosses and the money they paid me. Only I felt the negative repercussions of my mental check out, not them.
Animosity rears its ugly head; becoming combative or defensive; showing a disrespectful attitude and escalating criticism of the work or the goals. Hiding frustration isn’t easy, but once certain words are spoken they can’t be erased from memory. When you feel yourself wanting to flip people off with words, you may as well keep your mouth shut and resign. Divisiveness erodes progress in any relationship. It’s like a cancer metastasizing right before your very eyes. When I look back on my own experience, I remember many heated arguments with my bosses. They knew I was frustrated, but they also saw me coming up with new ideas and generating lots of work. They thought I got over it.
Fast-forward to the subs we hired, however, and I remember their defensiveness whenever their work was questioned. I remember the blame game; their frustration with their own incompetence became a finger pointing back at us, as if we made the project impossible to complete. Well, that wasn’t the case at all. After their termination, all the projects they were working on were brought in-house and were completed beyond our expectations, by ourselves. All we lost was money and time. However, we made up for it with pride, great outcomes and, of course, a much savvier perspective for the future.
If any of these A-words are popping up in your head, you may want to take a hard look at your situation, whether you’re the salaried employee, the sub-contractor on a project, or the head of a team or company. When I finally announced my resignation, I felt the weight of the world lift from my shoulders. When we terminated the subs who mentally checked out on our projects, I felt that same relief. These resolutions were ultimately liberating and unleashed strong upward momentum.
In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with mentally checking out; it happens. But how you deal with it says a lot about you. Do the right thing and physically check out as soon as you can.
Never burn a bridge when it comes to your employment and your reputation. These days, there aren’t that many new bridges being built.