An interview with DOCPOTTER

Human Resources  Report Vol. 18 No 10
Abridged from the original

Copyright 2000 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc
Washington DC

"Plateaued" Employees:
To Halt Stagnation Workers
Must Be Challenged, Stimulated
by Simon J. Nadel

In today's fast-paced workplaces, it's hard to imagine anyone simply standing still, but some employees are metaphorically doing just that.  Human resources experts assert that despite all the hype about constant change, flexibility, and free-agent workers, employee plateauing remains a problem at many companies.

Level of Complacency
Motivational guru Bob Nelson defines plateauing as "reaching a level of complacency." Plateaued employees are not incompetent, he said; "they're comfortable, and they're not stretching."

The author of several employment tomes, including the recently published 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work, Nelson calls plateauing "a huge issue."  Moreover, he said, "the older and larger the company, the more it's an issue."  In smaller companies, Nelson said, stagnating employees are more easily spotted and tend to get weeded out, while at bigger and older companies, workers can easily coast for years without being noticed.

Nelson dismisses the idea that plateauing is less of a problem today because workplaces are all operating at breakneck speed.  Contrary to popular opinion, he said, more employers are not fast-paced, high-tech start-ups.  With all the media hype, he quipped, "you would think that brick and mortar was closed down."

Rewarding Mediocrity
Employee reward systems can be a root cause of plateauing, according to employment experts. Nelson said that plateauing can occur when high performers, underachievers, and everyone in between get the same percentage annual pay increase.  "You end up driving a culture of mediocrity," he said.  "You're sending a clear message that if it really doesn't matter what you do in your job."

In this situation, Nelson said, the company's top performers will feel underappreciated and be more likely to either leave the organization or simply stop putting in any extra effort.  "That's a step towards plateauing," he said.

As for the less productive workers, Nelson said, "you end up reinforcing their marginal performance."  Moreover, Nelson said, when employers continue to give undeserved raises to mediocre workers, they essentially are "pricing them out of the market" and ensuring that they will remain with the employer in their plateaued state.

Employees can feel plateaued if they do not have a clear track ahead of them or if they do not see any of their peers being able to advance.

Psychologist Beverly Potter explained that sometimes "there is that person who is just stuck."  For example, Potter said, an administrative employee could be so proficient in the job that "nobody wants to move him on; he's too good."   Potter noted that hold such an employee back can hurt the company if "over time this person gets more and more frustrated."

Still, sometimes keeping an outstanding employee in the same position can be a boon to the company.  Potter asserted that customers often appreciate being able to take with the same competent company representative year after year. "A certain amount of sameness makes sense." she said.

In today's fast-paced business world, everyone seems obsessed with change for change's sake, Potter said; "you want to keep up, you want to be hip."  However, constant change for an organization can mean constant reshuffling of employees and continuous retraining, she said.  What organizations and individuals must release is that a certain amount of change should be tempered with a dose of stability.  "It's a balance," Potter said.  "It's not an either/or."

Illusory Plateaus
Potter, author of Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renewing Enthusiasm for Work, contends that often plateauing exists in the minds of employees. "In many cases it may be an illusion." she said.

Today's employees can fall victim to all the hype about how well everyone is doing in our booming economy, Potter warned.  Workers will feel like they are stagnating when they unrealistically compare themselves to "the cream of the crop," who are mainly in the high-tech sector, she said. "It's like comparing yourself to a movie star," Potter said.  "People can make themselves miserable over this."

According to Potter, employees also can imagine themselves plateaued with they fail to adapt to the changing employment picture.  "Sometimes the person is not blocked; they just don't understand the rules of the game have changed." she said.  Some workers are frustrated trying to climb the corporate ladder, Potter said, unaware that the old traditional hierarchical construction no longer exists.

Another cause of the illusory plateau, Potter said, is a worker who is "actually chronically depressed."  She explains that for a depressed individual, a new job acts as a "sort of self-medication," giving the person a temporary high.  However, Potter said, once that boost wears off, the employee goes back to feeling depressed and might be inclined to blame this condition on a lack of job satisfaction. "It's another kind of unrealistic expectation."

When employees feel plateaued, Potter said, "they can start getting into this problem of burnout"—a loss of motivation that can leave workers feeling helpless.  She warned that burnout can lead to chronic absenteeism, anger, thievery, and substance abuse.

Potter warned that any attempts at curbing burnout can be too little too late, because losing one's motivation is akin to losing one's spirit.  "When that gets damages, it just doesn't bounce back, " she said.

Reinvigorating the Listless
To give employees a sense of purpose and thus help avoid the plateauing phenomenon, "the company has to start with itself," Potter said.  Employers need to create a mission that each employee will buy into, Potter said.  By the same token, the organization needs to remind employees of their own purpose at work, whether it is to create new products, help people, or leave their marks in some other way.

Back to Useful Information