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Employee stuck in a rut? How to get out of a work slump in 7 steps

Your all-star employee is mired in a rut. It’s a common problem and many may not know how to get out of a work slump. What can you do to mitigate this risk and how can you help?

A once-high performer turned underperforming employee may be the result of many factors. Before you can help the employee correct their situation, you must learn about your employee and work to identify the underlying issues.

Here are seven steps to identify the underlying problem and reinvigorate your newly underperforming employee.

1. Understand the problem

Even the most motivated employees can experience tough times at work and can become disengaged.

Signs of a slump can take the form of customer complaints and partaking in unhealthy activities, such as frequent lateness, high levels of absenteeism or visible changes in attitude. Or simply that their work quality has fallen off noticeably.

Sometimes the reason is clear and other times it might not be so obvious. The causes could be vast, and you may never uncover the underlying catalysts. However, you can try to better understand the employee by encouraging them to be introspective.  

It’s helpful to first understand the various stages of employee engagement.

2. The categories of employees

Employees typically fall into one of three categories:

  • The engaged: They are into their work and are jazzed about their company.
  • The not engaged: They show up and do their work, but they lack the passion and the energy to give discretionary effort. The silent majority are unengaged. They take up the largest percentage of the three groupings, according to several studies.
  • The actively disengaged: These individuals make up the smallest percentage of the three groupings. They are disinterested, distracted and perhaps looking to move on.

The goal is to identify where on the spectrum is your rutted employee and begin to lead them on a path toward higher engagement.

Start by helping the employee remember why they are at the company and in what ways their role forwards the organization. It’s easy to forget that people get mired in their day-to-day responsibilities and can lose sight of why they joined the organization in the first place.

Instead of thinking in terms of solely extrinsic motivators, refocus more on intrinsic motivators and encourage them to reflect on their role.

Is there any project or new responsibility that will allow them to reconnect with the larger why they are with the company? That why can intrinsically drive and motivate us to stay engaged in our day-to-day work.

Most people want somewhere to go, and they want to grow. If they’re not getting that, it can harm productivity and cause an employee to fall into a rut.

Intrinsic motivation has a lot of contributing factors. Does the individual have clear goals that push them slightly outside the comfort zone of their skill set?

For the most part, people enjoy challenges and that leads to increased motivation, increased happiness and increased engagement. You want the goals to be reachable but cause them to stretch.

If someone’s challenge in their role is substantially larger than their skill set, it can be demoralizing and anxiety-provoking. And if the role is set too far below their skill set, it can lead to boredom and disengagement. Read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow for more research on this topic.

3. Communicate regularly

Lack of communication may have contributed to the employee falling into a rut and improving communication in the workplace is a key to reversing that.

A disillusioned employee may find it acceptable to let down a boss if they feel like a pawn in a game. But when you show them that you are partners and equals in the process, then you encourage employees to take accountability in their roles.

It is important for the leader to have regular conversations with the employee. It may be a quick five-minute chat or more formal sessions.

Once-a-year feedback does not cut it. There needs to be regular feedback from both parties, feedback that is balanced with both praise and constructive criticism. Are we moving the needle toward your goal? Why or why not? What barriers can I remove or mitigate to better enable you to meet these goals?

That communication is key, because the old saying that no news is good news is demotivating and can be quite harmful in a work environment. 

4. Make stress productive

A little bit of stress, i.e., eustress, supports performance and stimulates productivity. Our brains are wired for negativity for good reason: to ensure our survival. Then again, too much stress, i.e., distress, is counterproductive.

If you don’t offer employees transparent, authentic feedback, then you open the door to employees buying into secondhand negative information and rumors, which can adversely feed productivity problems.

Having authentic discussions can help with appropriate stress and getting all parties working toward a common goal. These conversations can be uncomfortable, but people need direct feedback and they need to hear the truth.

5. Don’t rely on rewards; feed needs

Practice empathy and compassion in order to cultivate transparency and communication with your team.

People have a personal need to be heard and understood, meaningfully involved and supported. They also have practical needs, for example how to approach a task or project, or plan a change.

These needs are important. Research studies have shown just giving rewards is not the only way to solve the issue. People are much more likely to stay with a company when they are intrinsically motivated in their role. They are given some autonomy and have a say, they are involved and they are trusted to run with their ideas.

6. Cultivate culture

At Google, engineers can devote up to 20 percent of their time to side projects not directly related to their role, which is one reason why it remains one of the most innovative companies in the world. This effort led to the creation of Gmail. The culture made this possible.

There is something self-satisfying about the desire for mastery of your situation. Intrinsic motivation is a powerful characteristic across all cultures and societies, and you can’t cultivate that motivation if you do not have an atmosphere of safety.

The Google engineers knew they were safe to pursue other projects. But if the atmosphere at your company is one that produces social pain, such as public rejection where a leader criticizes an employee in front of an entire team, that’s the wrong kind of culture, and it will have a negative impact on the entire group.

It compromises psychological safety, which has been shown to be the number one predictive indicator of high-performing teams.

In other words, members want to feel safe to take risks and to be vulnerable in front of each other. They want to be able to say “Hey, I have an idea” or “I don’t think that will work” without fear it will hurt their career or tarnish relationships.

Psychological safety produces innovation and creativity. If you don’t have that, people will be afraid to voice opinions. Looking to stay safe, you’ll have crickets in meetings and people looking to leave at 5 o’clock on the dot. And you’ll have people eventually falling into a rut.

7. Bottom line

If you want to elevate the engagement of employees, to get them out of their rut, intrinsic motivation is the answer. And it is an art, not a science.

People want to do things that matter, and if employees do not see how their role is connected to the high-level strategic objectives of the firm, it can lead to stagnation and allow the negativity bias to take over.

Transparency and authenticity are paramount in building trust between leadership and employees. Without that, the brain’s default negativity bias is bound to take over. Again, this is where communication is key. The common thread is having a two-way dialogue with employees. They should understand that you care and are invested in them.  

You must also allow for some mistakes in the name of growth and development. If the person is making the same mistakes over and over, then that’s a different story. But show them you trust them, give them autonomy and they are less likely to stay in that rut.

Micromanaging elevates stress. In most cases, it drives people crazy. The best employers get out of the way and let their people shine.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can maximize your workforce and improve your company culture, download our complimentary e-magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.

The Insperity Guide to Employee Engagement, Issue 1
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