Tip of the Month, November 2019 – Management Tips for Employees who Coast

Tip of the Month, November 2019 – Management Tips for Employees who Coast

Jill Bachman’s blog article last month addressed the idea of coasting at work from an employee perspective (click here to read).  She described healthy coasting as the need to take a breath as part of a work life cycle and compared it to problematic coasting as an avoidance strategy when the individual is unhappy, burned out, bored or dealing with work/personal issues.

As a manager, your role is to observe behaviors and intervene to attain organizational outcomes. How do you differentiate healthy from problematic coasting and how do you address coasting?

Let’s be clear that coasting is not the same as underperforming.  If you have an employee who is not fulfilling their work obligations, not meeting deadlines or completing assignments, or the quality is substandard, these things must be addressed within your company guidelines.

The question is more compelling when you see an employee who appears to be stepping back, not volunteering for new assignments or offering to help, perhaps appearing less engaged, enthusiastic or passionate about the work.

This is a great time to check in.

First of all, assess your own values. What is your belief about “coasting?”  Is it ever okay?  Does it fit with the company culture?  Start-ups rarely have space and time for coasting, but in organization life cycles there are different stages, as with employee life cycles.

One organizational life cycle paradigm describes four stages: start-up, growth, maturity and rebirth or decline.  Consider it the same way for employees.  Usually there is great enthusiasm from newly hired employees.  They remain actively engaged for the first two to three years, learning, volunteering, growing more valuable to the company.

Then, there is the “maturity” phase where they have mastered their position, understand the company, its values and direction and are doing solid to great work.  At this point, they have the ability to coast a little.  They are comfortable where they are.  Employee engagement studies, however, find that this time can be the beginning of an engagement decline.  Enthusiasm wanes and commitment lessens.

In an organization, this is the juncture where an organization reinvents itself or begins a decline into irrelevance and/or non-competitiveness. Organizations need to revisit their mission and unique position in the field, analyze external pressures and disruptors, and identify new directions. Where will they be in three to five years?

For employees, it is time to analyze where they are now and where they want to be in three to five years. This is the time, as their manager to have the following conversations.

  1. What is happening in their lives right now? If they have health issues, family concerns, a new baby or are in a graduate program, it might be understandable if they coast (perform well but not grow) for a limited amount of time. If you are invested in long-term retention, understand that there will be such times and support the employee through them.
  2. Where are they in their own career life cycle?
    • How long have they been with the company/organization? In their current job?  If it has been more than 2 – 3years, this is a time to discuss what they value in their work, what they have achieved and how they want to grow – going deeper in the current position.
    • Have they tried to advance but not succeeded? What do they need to move up?
      • More education, skills, experience?
      • Are there problems/deficits that they need to work on – addressing both hard and soft skills?
      • Is it possible in the current work environment? Not enough openings, culture or climate that prefers hiring at that level from outside?
      • If they do not move up, can you re-engage them in the current position or is it time to help them think about their next career move?
    • Are they close to retirement?
      • Are you assuming they do not want to learn or try new things? Are you dis-engaging them by not offering opportunities?
      • What are they interested in doing with the time they have left with the company?
      • How can the organization capitalize on their knowledge, skills and experience?
      • Are you concerned with their performance but don’t want to invest in what is required to change it? Are you just waiting it out until they retire? (Is this good for them, you, the organization?)
    • What is happening in the organizational culture that might be impacting their passion, enthusiasm and performance?
      • Mergers and acquisitions as well as major changes in policies and/or leadership are all known to reduce performance during the transition.
        • Recognize that this will occur for a period of time.
        • Use proven communication interventions to reduce the duration and impact.
          • Provide open and honest communication about what is occurring and why. Know you will have to repeat communication often to reassure folks.
          • Acknowledge personal impact both professionally and emotionally – what is happening in their day to day existence?
          • As a leader, be clear about what is going on, avoid cynicism and be patient with folks who are uncomfortable with change.
        • Toxic employees who are allowed to continue destructive behaviors result in demoralized, unmotivated employees.
          • Some organizations will keep these folks around if they are bringing in good money. It is important to assess how much the organization is losing because of their impact on other employees.  Look at turnover, time consuming avoidance measures and lack of productivity in others.
          • If you are hearing concerns from other employees, pay attention and do something. This is a place where bias can often show up so that complaints are not taken seriously. e.g. if it is two women who are having concerns, it suddenly becomes a “cat fight,” or employees are told they are grown-ups and need to handle it themselves.  When you disregard these concerns, you are making a statement about your organization’s cultural values.  Think about it.

In all circumstances, it is important to be clear about expectations.  Do employees understand what you consider meeting and/or exceeding expectations? Is it acceptable to just meet expectations? Is that coasting? Is there any value to exceeding expectations?  This can be monetary (bonuses), advancement or recognition.

I know that I prefer to work in an environment where everyone is excited, committed and passionate about their work, that people support each other and want to go the extra mile.  It adds meaning and satisfaction to my work life. I have had the privilege of working with teams that shared that energy.  And even then, we knew it was important to find time to take a breath, to step back, appreciate what we accomplished, and celebrate.  After that pause we felt ready to tackle the next question, where do we go from here?

To wrap up, remember the comparison to weight training.  We need time between sets to recover.  When we never let up, we risk injury to our bodies, our minds and our souls. We can do this in short spurts during the workday, through vacations and through occasional lower-demand times in our work lives. We can use these coasting times to rekindle our energy and strengthen our commitment.

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