From my personal annals of Most-Frequent Owner Managerial Conundrums: “How do I motivate a plateaued high performer?”
Maybe your former rock star performer is stranded on a lonely plateau not making progress. That former rock star performer may even be you.
The bad news is it’s frustrating to find any way to reignite from there. The good news is you’re not imagining things – this phenomenon is rooted in the well-documented field of what modern academics call positive psychology. This means there is a way to lift the needle out of the groove on the broken record of boredom and malaise in the stakeholder’s or your brain, frequently caused by having met your goals and having none to look forward to.
Maybe it’s not malaise – maybe it’s comfort and not wanting to change. Whatever the reason for being plateaued, this article will offer some solutions to help folks get off that plateau and back into growth mode.
A Real-Life Example
To get on with more of the “how” and not the “why” here, I’ll sprinkle in the psychology behind how an owner might handle this real-life example:
Situation: A senior advisor brought a large book of business to a firm that acquired his old one. This advisor is not “old” by any means – he still has spark and his hair has a much higher ratio of pepper to salt. This advisor has definitely “made it.”
The book generates more than $1 million a year, he shares well for overhead and is a positive member of the team. But he hasn’t added a new client in years, he takes off every Friday for “client networking” and frequently ignores client service team process requests for his clients. By the standards of the junior people in the office, he’s veering toward becoming the advisor equivalent of Peter Gibbons – a character from the movie “Office Space” who doesn’t do much, goes fishing in the middle of the day and generally seems indifferent. “What happened to him?” his long-time colleagues might ask. “This guy used to have so much energy and motivation.”
Maybe you are a manager to someone in your office who has lost some “oomph” and you’re saying to yourself, “I really need him to be a leader for the younger people in our firm by showing how to win new business. He’s not setting a good tone for the culture. What can I do to motivate him?”
Or maybe you are feeling like the Peter Gibbons in your office, and you want that “oomph” back in your own attitude.
Back to the psychology part: You can’t truly motivate another person. Motivation is a process generated from within. But you can be a coach to help someone jump-start the awareness and creative thinking that incites each of us to reach for new things, and be motivated once more to leave the plateau.
As achievers in life, we all naturally reach a state of meeting our goals at some point. And if we haven’t planned new goals, ventures or dreams ahead of time – or shortly after reaching the finish line of whatever our last dream was – we can become too comfortable on the new plateau we have achieved.
When you suspect someone else is stuck, you don’t know exactly what’s happening with that person. It’s best to ask before jumping to conclusions, judging or assuming.
They could really think they’re doing great, be stuck in the past or be fine with the status quo because they’re safe and things are working well enough. But if they (or you) want to improve, the key is to get out of your comfort zone. Here’s how to do it:
Steps for Creating Disruption to Motivate Change
A plateaued person might have numbed sensitivities and may not see an accurate reality of their performance, and you need to help them see a more realistic picture. Whether they change is up to them.
Let’s go back to the example of the stakeholder situation mentioned earlier. This person is trapped in a shell of his former self, living in the past. It’s not his fault – it’s our wiring as human beings. Our minds tend to stay where it’s safe. And it’s up to us to help them bring a new vision for the future into their picture.
You have to coach the plateaued person to break out of the norms they’ve become used to and disrupt their perception so the status quo feels abnormal and they have a different, higher bar – or milestone – to which to aspire.
There are two steps to do this:
Step 1: Figure out what the plateaued stakeholder’s comfort zone is and was. What motivated this person in the past? In the real-world example above, it had been the feeling of being at the top of his game, getting the recognition of making things happen, status in the office as a top performer and inclusion in the tight circle of decision-makers at his former firm. Fast forward, and the book is still intact, he still feels like that top performer inside and is motivated to stay feeling that way, but the world around him is different now and he may not see that.
Symptoms: The plateaued stakeholder may seem frustrated, bewildered, bored or checked out – or maybe they might be happy with things the way they are, but as a manager, you know they’re capable of more.
Or you sense that they want to want to get excited and strive again, but it’s not happening. Symptoms of this can be resentment, detachment/isolating oneself from others, emotional tantrums, increasingly overt sensitivity to criticism and apathy.
Step 2: Disrupt the plateaued stakeholder’s comfort with the status quo. Hold up the mirror and create discomfort by shaking the person out of their current perception of their performance. And step 2.5: As the manager, recreate that feeling of inclusion, winning and stature for this person by illustrating current expectations and how it differs from their current behavior.
Here are some things to say and not say:
Do say: “You’re so vital to bringing in new business for us – is everything alright? I assumed you were powering on, but realize I must’ve ignored you because I don’t see any new business activity. I’m worried.”
Or: “You’re one of the advisors others really look up to. You know how to bring in the bacon, and I need your help to show others how it’s done right.”
Do not say: “You’re just not living up to what I know you can do.”
The key is to emphasize and praise what you want, not repeat what you don’t want or chastise them. Our brains record what they’re told. If you tell this person they’re not doing as well as they were before, their subconscious hears only that and it’s demotivating, rather than inspirational.
You want to inspire them to reenvision the future. You can do this by saying, “You’re important to ‘xyz,’ you’re strong at ‘xyz,’ it’s great that you’re here for us to do ‘xyz’” – they will hear and start believing that instead. Then hopefully, over time, they’ll be motivated to sustain that vision, feel it and behave in a way that reinforces it – beginning to achieve more.
When It’s You Alone on the Plateau
If you’ve read to this point and realized that the plateaued advisor is you, then you can apply these tips to yourself.
As I stated before, motivation comes from within, and you just need to explore the things that lit your fire before.
Here are some ways to do that:
Do: Sit down and do some self-reflection. Figure out what used to motivate you. Was it recognition? Was it watching clients reach milestones? Write those things down. Also, explore some resources to help you develop new and better habits. One example is the book Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Do not: Be complacent and satisfied with the new status quo of subpar performance. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t give in to negative self-talk.
Again, your brain believes what you tell it. If you tell yourself you’re not doing well or you’re not as valuable as you were before, your brain will believe it and you won’t get off that plateau anytime soon.
The key is to envision a new future. Maybe that means going through the Blueprinting process again to get some renewed inspiration and focus on your mission and purpose.
When the Plateau is a Pit Stop
But what if none of this works? What if the plateau is a pit stop to something completely different?
As I previously mentioned, changes in behavior and performance must be self-generated. You’re just serving as a coach to bring that inspiration for change to the surface.
Maybe in the process of trying to ignite inspiration, you realize you wouldn’t hire your plateaued stakeholder today. Maybe they aren’t displaying your company values anymore and you are at a crossroads where you need to have a dialogue with them about their dreams. If you’ve tried everything a good coach can, and you don’t sense much engagement, it’s OK to discuss whether it’s time for them to reinvent their life or pursue something else. It doesn’t have to be a negative judgement.
This could be a positive conversation. Ask them, “Are you still really happy with this job?” Nobody wants to be stuck or bored. That’s not good for anybody.
We humans feel best when we’re striving and accomplishing our dreams and desires. Making your firm an environment that encourages this makes it a great place to work where people can perform optimally. Helping people get unstuck – or giving them (or helping them find) a path forward – provides a positive experience for everybody in your firm’s ecosystem.
You don’t have to stay frustrated – whether it’s you or someone else on your team. There are ways to enact change. Action and communication – not judgment – are the key.
If you approach this situation determined to get positive results, even if that means moving on to new uncharted waters, the outcome will be positive in the end. Life is meant to evolve.