A prescription for 'performance plateau'

If a star employee has begun to lag in his or her job, then it's time to battle the performance plateau. Here are some tactics for isolating the cause behind the slump in work and bringing that employee back on the fast track.

“Performance plateau” refers to the condition when a formerly hard-charging employee (or manager) stops making progress. Previously, the employee in question was on a fast track, always excelling and looking for new challenges. Now he or she is content to coast. In my previous column on this topic, I gave you some questions you could ask the employee (or yourself, since none of us are immune) to “diagnose” the condition. This time, I want to give you some strategies for combating performance plateau.

Different problems, different cures
Before I offer those strategies, a word about what follows. Remember that there could be a variety of reasons why one of your best employees develops performance plateau. For example, it could be simple burnout, where a basically good performer is just tired from pushing full-tilt for too long. On the other hand, a person can get bored if left in the same job too long, or in a job with little challenge.

As an example of this latter condition, I can speak from personal experience. Some time ago, I worked for a company that was relocated to another city. As part of the transition, those of us who had declined the company’s offer to move were kept on for a number of months to help train our replacements and to keep the lights on, so to speak, until they shut our office down.

At the time, it seemed like a great deal: several months to look for a new job, with ever-diminishing responsibilities at the current job. For the last couple of months, we were usually finished with our daily work by mid-morning, and the most strenuous activity of the day was choosing where we were going to eat lunch.

Like I said—a great deal, right? Well, not exactly. You see, after I left there for my new job, it took a while to get back into the swing of things. Getting paid to work only two or three hours is fine while it lasts, but it sure makes it hard when it comes time to work a full day again: I never knew eight hours could seem like such a “brutal” workload.

The point, of course, is that you have to learn the reasons why your employee’s performance has started to stagnate before you can decide what to do. If my boss in the new job didn't understand why it was taking me a while to get up to speed, he may have thought I was just lazy. Instead, he just encouraged me to get past that "make time" level of performance, and get back to where he knew I could perform.

Once you’ve learned the reasons behind an employee’s performance lag, you can employ one or more of the techniques listed below. (Note: In my previous column, I gave a list of questions for diagnosing performance plateau, assuming you were trying to determine if you had it. This time, I’ll assume you’re concerned about one of your staff member’s behavior.)

Have a candid conversation
This is where you should always start. Sit down with the individual and express your concerns. Provide some examples for context. It could go something like this: “You know, you’ve always been kind of a superstar around here, but lately I’ve noticed that you don’t seem as motivated as you used to be. For example, I’m thinking how you handled [x]. A year ago, I think you’d have aced that, but that’s not how it turned out. So what can you tell me? Is something going on, and how can I help?”

Obviously, that’s an abbreviated form, but it has the right elements: start by acknowledging previous excellent performance, which makes current difficulties harder to understand. List at least one specific example to back up the premise of your conversation. Finish by inviting comment, and offering to help with whatever problem the employee mentions.

Involve HR (if necessary)
Hopefully, your conversation with the employee won’t bring up any reason to contact HR, such as harassment, substance abuse, and so on. However, if there is a reason to bring in HR, don’t hesitate.

Offer a special project
If your employee is bored or unchallenged, you might try giving him or her control of some kind of new project to oversee or a technical problem to solve. (This is why you need to have that conversation before trying anything to solve the problem. If your former superstar is burned out or worn down, for example, a special project is the last thing he or she needs.)

Recommend a vacation
It’s amazing how few people take all of their eligible vacation time. That’s particularly true in the current economic environment. With layoffs a common fact of corporate life, many are holding on to their vacation days, as a way to supplement their exit package, should they get caught in the next RIF.

All that notwithstanding, vacation is important. If your person is suffering from burnout or stress or just feels beaten-down by the pressure of the job, strongly encourage him or her to take a vacation. If your person is reluctant to spend the money for a trip, at least get him or her to take a few days off, even if he or she just lies around the house. It can really help recharge the batteries.

Restructure the job
What if one facet of the current job is dragging down your former wunderkind? In other words, what if a relatively small component of the job is making him or her miserable? If that is the case, you might consider shuffling the responsibility for that particular job function to someone who can better deal with it.

Move to a lateral job
In extreme cases of burnout or boredom, a lateral job move might be the last chance to salvage the employee. Let him or her make a fresh start in a new position, hopefully one with none of the elements that caused problems in the current job. Of course, this is a pretty radical solution, and you need to work out the details with HR before even proposing it to the employee.

Have a talk, and hope for the best
So there you have it. The key is to have a direct and detailed discussion with the employee. That gives you the insight necessary to suggest a course of action. Without that conversation upfront, you might actually propose something that would end up being counterproductive.

From the IT Leadership Web log
I first started talking about performance plateau on TechRepublic’s blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free, and I post to it almost every business day.


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