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4 Ideas to Help Employees Move Beyond Their Performance Plateau

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I’ve encountered more than a few managers who have expressed frustration over the pace of development of someone they have marked for future advancement and increased contribution. For many of these managers, it’s a vexing dilemma with no clear solution.

One manager offered: Mary is a talented individual, and I believe she can do more for us. However, she seems to run in the opposite direction from new opportunities and challenges, preferring to stay closer to what she knows.

Another shared: Jason was great as a new employee, and we moved him along quickly by adding new responsibilities and more money. Recently however, it seems like he cannot get out of his own way. The mistakes are piling up and his colleagues are beginning to question his capabilities.

Everyone has a capacity to learn and grow, but some individuals self-limit their pace based on insecurities and fears. While there are many reasons otherwise talented individuals resist new opportunities, a few of the most common include: concern about sustaining a high level of performance in an unfamiliar role, discomfort over dealing with people outside their core area of expertise or reticence over changing a mission that they’ve long internalized. As a result, it’s possible for people with remarkable skills and potential to become stuck on a personal performance plateau, leaving otherwise conscientious managers flummoxed over what to do.

There are no easy or magical answers, but here are four ideas:

1. Assess whether your expectations for the individual are realistic. Get some objective input from an outside observer to help ask and answer some important questions. Are your expectations for this individual’s growth realistic? Are you imposing your belief in their abilities on the individual when he or she doesn’t share this same belief? Have you moved the person along too fast and not allowed appropriate acclimation or mastery time? Have you reached a point where additional growth must be supported by additional training, education or coaching?

2. Start a dialog rich in expectation setting and ripe with feedback. Talk openly with the individual about your belief in his or her potential, and share examples. If your high potential is suddenly struggling in a new role, share specific and timely behavioral feedback and work together to find a way to strengthen performance. It may be training and education, it may be clarification of objectives, and it may just be lack of confidence in tackling the new role.

For many managers, it’s awkward to start a constructive dialog on performance challenges with someone who has been on the receiving end of nothing but gold stars and praise. It’s important to get beyond this discomfort. There’s never a substitute for transparency, and this honest and behavioral focused dialog is the foundation for future development efforts.

3. Change your approach to the individual’s development and advancement. Design assignments, not positions to help people acclimate to new challenges. The formality of a potential promotion to responsibilities outside the experience or comfort zones of an individual can trigger a fear and flight response. Mitigate this by exposing high potentials to informal experiences in the new areas. Ask them to contribute to a project team. Assign them to engage people in other functions on an improvement initiative. Create a scenario to shadow managers and other contributors in different areas. And don’t forget about lateral job rotation assignments as a means of exposing someone to new people and experiences before promoting them to the next level. (Note: it often seems like assignment rotation is a lost approach. We don’t practice it enough in most of our organizations, yet it is the best way I know to build well-rounded team members. Give it a shot even if it is not widely practiced in your organization.)

4. Recognize that some people just want to perfect their craft, and refocus their development to support the pursuit of mastery in their current vocation. Your belief in a person’s ability to do more is secondary to their core interests. Accept that sometimes it’s not fear or insecurity that holds people in place, but rather a deep interest in what they are doing. At the end of the day, the individual always reserves the right to stay close to a vocation or role they identify with and want to master.

While I encourage you to pursue all of the above, have an honest debate yourself about whether you should reset your expectations. It’s OK to have narrow contributors who are high performers in their preferred domain. Not everyone is interested in leading or even in doing more. In this situation, shift your support to helping them become the best performer they can be in their chosen area and move your sights to someone else for broader leadership and management tasks.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Kudos on your concern for the development and growth of your team members. The worlds needs more of you. Nonetheless, people don’t always respond as you might expect and at the pace you might perceive is appropriate. Handled poorly, you risk derailing a high potential and damaging your management credibility. The best managers learn to adjust and adapt to suit the individual.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with top executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. Art writes the Management Excellence blog.

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