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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.
Encourage an Entirely New Learning Curve
If your employees’ current level of skill is high but not growing, suggest a move to a new assignment, new team, or a new project or client — anything to help them jump to a new learning curve. When people hang out at the top, their mastery can prevent others who are ready to grow from doing so.
Be direct and sympathetic as you communicate their successes and growth. They’ve simply outgrown their current position.
Recently, one of my coaching clients had this very conversation: They encouraged a good employee to leave the team. Now, this was a valued employee, who had been in the organization for over a decade. My client wasn’t going to kick him to the curb. But it had become clear — to both my client and the employee — that the employee had stalled in his current role. It was a tough conversation, but both the employee and his boss walked away with a huge sense of relief. The employee, no longer feeling stuck, ultimately jumped into a highly entrepreneurial endeavor for two years, then chose to retire. He got his swan song and a strong finish.
You and Your Team Series
Managing this way isn’t easy. Shanna Hocking, associate vice president of development at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, speaks highly of her former boss Pam Parker, VP for Advancement at the University of Alabama. Parker was tough, and she pushed Hocking on to new learning curves and helped her know when needed to leap to a new challenge.
Now Hocking is the boss and hopes to emulate Parker’s style. She’s realized that investing in employees involves parting with something — her time, effort, and mental energy. It won’t work for people who are focused on instant gratification and whose strategy doesn’t encompass anything beyond the next quarterly report. The dividends will come, but true human resource development doesn’t happen in days or months; it can take years and sometimes even decades.
When we have experts on our teams, it’s not about stepping back and letting them “float.” It’s time to offer an assignment that really stretches them, or else to encourage them to move on. Instead of dreading these types of difficult conversations, think of them as a great time to express your appreciation and encouragement. Every employee, however long they’ve worked for you, wants to know they matter. Nothing says that quite like giving them the opportunity to grow.