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.

Leading intentionally – a life-long learning process

Guest contributor – Dr. Jan Gehler
Dr. Jan Gehler retired from the Presidency of Scottsdale Community College in August of this year.  Thunderbird Leadership has been privileged to work and collaborate with her during her tenure and asked her to share her reflections on the work of leadership as she moves on to the next chapter of her life.
Planning for and executing a process for individual and team development requires a belief in the importance of life-long learning. A successful executive understands – and models – learning as a basic skill.  As educators we continually affirm the importance of such learning for our students and staff, but sadly we often ‘don’t get around to it for ourselves,’ and by extension for our leadership team . The higher the level of position we hold, the more confidence we gain, the easier it is to eschew formal learning or the wisdom of others. As in every other area of leadership, we must ‘model the way.’
Within a leader’s ‘life-long-learning’ curriculum is the task of becoming self-aware.  When we ARE self-aware, we constantly assess our thoughts and actions against the audience, the environment, the issues. Where do we need to step up and assert, where do we need to hold back, listen, trust others and wait? For some, this ‘sense’ of how we best lead is instinctive; for others, it must be learned, and yet for others, it’s a combination of learning to ‘trust’ one’s gut, coupled with the skills and understanding gained through experience, through formal and informal learning. It can be difficult, amid the noise of the moment and the competing ‘styles’ that give way to conflicting opinions and direction, to pick up the ‘cues’ for best action or decisions. The practice that comes with formal and informal learning can make the path through tough decisions, if not easier, at least simpler and more familiar.
Over many years as an education administrator, I’ve come to know myself pretty well. I am clear about the source of the values, habits and practices that I learned from my family of origin. I am a classic middle child, driven instinctively to find peace and balance. I have also learned that I am able to work inductively and deductively; most people have strengths in one direction. I can work both ways, and I often take the time to do that when considering important decisions or trying to solve complex problems; my approach can frustrate others who think more linearly. I came to this awareness over years spent in learning about myself, about what constitutes effective leadership, how to build and support an exceptional leadership team, i.e. through life-long learning.
Recognizing my own ‘needs and style,’ the profiles of my leadership team, the needs of the institution, the political environment, etc. there are several standard thinking processes that I’ve employed. If I have any advice for up-coming leaders, it would include:

  1. devote time, energy and resources to individual and team development;
  2. take time individually and as a team to ask “what if” questions, to explore all options and creative, if not crazy ideas;
  3. examine every decision, solution, proposal by viewing it through a series of lenses, asking yourself and your team ‘are there implications for HR, for IT, for PR, for budget, for other divisions, in this decision, this strategy?’;
  4. pause long enough to consider the generational question, i.e. what are the second and third waves of effect of this decision? Always consider the PR implications for the students, the faculty, the institution, the community, your partners, etc. Think this through yourself and ask your team to discuss their answers openly.

I am a high “S” (using the DiSC profiles) which means I take the time I need to think through these questions. I tend to think through the ‘worst case’ and then determine if I/we can live with that; if so or if we can mitigate the challenges, then presto, we move forward. Needless-to-say my “D” and “I” (action-oriented) colleagues can grow weary of my style. But over the years, they have taught me to move more quickly, as I have taught them to move more thoughtfully (for the longer term). We have learned together how best to lead together and found executive team development to be an invaluable tool.
When it is well done, executive team development provides individuals with new insights about their own skills, their own knowledge (what they know and what they need to learn) and as important, perspective/attitude. How do you think of your role as an administrator among other administrators? Back to the lenses!  Your role is not unilateral. It requires seeing from all perspectives. It is stewardship. You have affirmed by taking the position to do as much as you can to help the organization achieve its mission. Individual and team development is an essential strategy to achieve that mission.
The group work is uncomfortable by design – we are called to dig deep and share; remember the old group development idea? – forming, storming, norming, performing.  We have gone through that trajectory – AND it has to happen every time the constellation changes.
Frankly, it is fun to learn and grow together.  It is fun to have discoveries of what we are and aren’t doing.  A good facilitator will call us on our stuff – to have moments, if we are paying attention, that increase self-awareness. I don’t know an administrator who doesn’t need that to avoid being blinded by our ego, our title and our successes.
– Dr. Jan Gehler

Employee Wellbeing and the Bottom Line

While it’s clear that happy, healthy employees are more effective and productive at work, it’s not always clear to employers what they can do to help set the stage for employee happiness and wellbeing. However, because people spend so much of their time at work, employers are in the ideal position to invest in their employees’ wellbeing.