What to Do When a Good Employee Stops Trying to Grow

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Whitney Johnson for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The best managers know they’re supposed to give the people they lead challenging assignments to keep them interested and engaged. But what do you do when someone you manage gets to the top of their learning curve — and doesn’t really want to be pushed any further?

Is it OK if someone you are managing doesn’t seem motivated to take on a new assignment or build new skills? When, like a helium balloon, they’re content to float near the ceiling, doing a perfectly good job but never rising higher? What do we do with the experienced experts who have seemingly hit a ceiling and are totally fine with staying there?

As a manager, you might feel relieved that someone so valuable seems happy to stay where they are. There is a common mindset that favors leaving high-performing employees in place once they have mastered their domain, indefinitely reaping the rewards of their labor, but it ultimately has a downside.

Think of the difference between a stagnant pond — unmoving, algae-covered, a breeding ground for mosquitoes — and a lively, bubbling stream. In the stream, there’s enough motion to keep the water fresh.

Employees at the high end of their learning curve also require change. They are settling into a comfort zone, and absent the stimuli associated with overcoming challenges and building competence, they can quickly become bored, indifferent, and disengaged. Stagnation can breed entitlement, an environment hostile to creative thinking and innovation.

I see this happen for one of two reasons: the need for a new challenge, or the need for a change.

As managers, we can use this insight to figure out which approach to take. There are really two options here.

Offer a Stretch Assignment

That’s what Sumeet Shetty, product development manager at SAP India, did. Subsequent to a reorganization, he inherited a new team. Some of these people made it clear they were happy right where they were — they were comfortable, settled into their routine. But Shetty saw that they were capable of more.

So he gave them stretch assignments, including an exercise in which they had to rehearse board report speeches over and again. They complained that rehearsing for a board presentation was unnecessary. And their first tries reflected these sentiments — they really weren’t very good. But by the sixth time, the presentations were improving. And when the team reported back at the end of the year on Shetty’s performance, they cited this stretch assignment as the most impactful thing he had done as a manager. Six months earlier he had been desperate to find a way to stop the complaining. And finding a professional solution was not easy, but ultimately ended up being what they needed.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.


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