Are You Drowning In Your Position

You know the crazy thing about drowning?  It doesn’t look like you’re drowning! Read this from Mario Vittone:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Take away the eventually water death – and this seems eerily familiar to some of our employees…

As HR Pros/Hiring Managers/Supervisors we have people who are drowning in their positions right now – but we can’t “see” them drowning.  Employees have natural things they do in terms of self-preservation, much like some one who is truly drowning.  They begin to do: put in extra time at the office, they seem a little to stressed for normal work, they make things bigger than what they are (this gives them an excuse in case of failure), etc. – it gives you an impression “they’re on top of it” – but they aren’t.  They tend not to ask for help – they don’t want anyone to know they’re in trouble – they can handle it on their own.

How do you spot an employee who is going under?

1. Look for employees who are disengaging with key relationships they need to have to get their job done.  Why?  Employees who are drowning – will disconnect from those who will be the first ones to spot them drowning – key hiring managers or peers from other departments – which buys them time from their own supervisors finding out they aren’t staying afloat.

2. They become defensive or blame shift – when this isn’t usually part of their normal behavior.  Another mechanism they use as a life preserver –  “it’s not me – it’s them!”

3. Drowning employees tend to cling to each other.  Rarely will you see a drowning employee hanging with a top performer (that’s one more person who will see they aren’t making it).

How do you save an employee who is drowning?

That’s even tougher than spotting them!  Because it takes you confronting them, and not allowing them to cop-out, most HR Pros/Hiring Managers/Supervisors find this very uncomfortable (hello Performance Management!) It basically takes you jumping into their role – deep – and pulling them out.  Most of us don’t like getting our clothes wet and ruining our iPhone – so we try and throw them things to help instead – additional training, words of encouragement, EAP, discipline…sound familiar?  When what they need is some full life saving – to push them up for air and take them to shore (you’re sick of metaphors at this point! – actually do the job with them for a while, so them how it should be done).  You still might decide when it’s all done to let the person go – they just can’t handle the position – but some will actually learn from the experience and turn out to be really good.

3 thoughts on “Are You Drowning In Your Position

  1. From an actual drowning perspective – please, don’t ever hit anyone on the head to bring them in. But the reasons why are the same in both areas (water and HR) I believe. Once a panicked victim feels secure above the water’s surface, they almost always relax and stop panicking. It was their perception (real) that they were alone and incapable that caused the panic to begin with. This is true in the office as well. Often, once they know they have help – real help – and are not alone, the panic stops and you can begin to work the problem.

    Sure, the truly poor performer who is out of their depth may be in the wrong job (or project) and need to be drug back to the beach – but sometimes they just need to know someone will hold them up long enough to dig back in and swim it out.

  2. I read this post on I have to say that there is another possibility for the root cause of drowning. The elephant in the room is that the employees who have retained their jobs in the downturn have been asked to take on more than their capacity truly allows. I see this first hand in my IT department as I maintain our demand (hrs) / capacity (people) measurements and report out to senior management. In addition to that role, which was my full-time job, I’ve been assigned another role which is a full-time job. As a former manager – yes, I agree with your assessment; you need to get in and do the job with them and show them the better way (manage up or out). But we need to be honest with ourselves, our organization – our employees with this question; are we now engineering yet another “jobless” recovery by squeezing out still more productivity with the resources (of “human” type) we have? And our current management wonders why our team members are leaving our department for work at other companies at a noticeable rate. Someone (perhaps you) needs to speak to the supply/demand equation and ask the question. Thank you.

  3. When I was a lifeguard we were trained to always come up behind the drowning victim and if you were really desperate, smack them in the head with the rescue buoy and bring them in unconscious. Sadly that doesn’t work in the HR field. But the point is that you are making sure the victim doesn’t accidently drown you in their panic. That is true for HR as well. A drowning employee can sing a department or project. Your warning signs are dead on.

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