If you've been in business for a while, it's surely happened to you: One of your star employees suddenly becomes a falling star. After months or years of exemplary work, he or she surprisingly begins phoning it in.
Of course, you can fire a truly bad employee, but it's almost worse if your power player starts putting out a mediocre or simply average performance. All that potential and promise... just gone.
So how do you get the magic back? Waving a wand won't help, but the following three-step plan for a rehabilitating a former star worker is as close to a magic formula as it gets.
1. Talk to Your Employee
If your employee isn't doing anything wrong, it's tempting to ignore the problem and say nothing at all. Because if your employee isn't wowing you with A+ performance like in the good ol' days, well, there's no crime in that.
But if you sense something is amiss, your first step should be to have a straightforward conversation with them, suggests Rick Maurer, a change management consultant and author of Feedback Toolkit: 16 Tools for Better Communication in the Workplace. "Acknowledge all the good work they've done," he says, "then note what you've seen recently. Don't speculate. Simply state what is objective."
After that? "Then listen," Maurer says. "You might learn something. You might see how conditions have changed in a way that has hurt their work. If so, perhaps you can change those environmental conditions."
Odds are, there's a reason for the change. "High performers don't just one day decide to be slackers. High performers don't like to perform poorly. Something has changed," says Rick Brandt, president of consulting services at TalentQuest, a company that provides human capital consulting services and talent management software solutions.
"In some cases, changes in work performance may have nothing to do with work. The employee might need some flexibility or time off to handle a personal issue," adds Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half International, a global staffing and recruiting firm. "If the changes are based in work-related issues, then you can figure out how to address them. Having too much or too little work, conflicts with coworkers, or uncertainty about the company’s future can all cause drops in morale, motivation and productivity."
2. Look in the Mirror
If your employee can't offer a clear reason for their newly disappointing performance, it might be time to look a little closer to home—maybe there's something in your management style that's pushing your star employee away.
Do you complain too much? Or let setbacks get to you, then take out your stress on your employees? Is a dip in sales turning you into a drill sergeant with your team, using your raised voice or anger to try to motivate them to improve? If you're the problem, it might be hard to fix the problem because you don't know what you don't know.
But you can help safeguard against making the problem even worse. It again comes back to communicating with your star employee. Justin Brady, a writer and corporate speaker who specializes in cultivating creativity, says that the really smart business owner will create an atmosphere in which employees can offer "no repercussions" negative feedback to their boss.
"To stomach that kind of feedback, that takes a boss who has a lot of self-esteem and who's a really good leader," Brady says, adding that if you can take it, it will show you truly care about your employees and should improve their productivity.
Of course, it's not always possible to offer the type of work environment your employees want. For instance, if your employees would like to tackle problems you don't think they're equipped to handle, you may not be able to comply with their request. After all, you run a company, not a college. But if you can, it's worth trying to accommodate your employee, even if you know they may be on their way out the door, Brady suggests.
"If the writing is on the wall, lose your employee in a glorious way," Brady advises. "Make sure that when they move on, they're an advocate for your company and not an enemy."
In other words, if you can give your employee what they want or even diffuse the tension by discussing the fact that you know your star employee isn't going to stick around forever and that you're willing to give them a good reference when they leave, then you're going to have a good employee again. At least for as long as they stay.
It's also good karma, Brady says. "You don't have much to gain," he says, "if you have all these ex-employees who hate your guts."
3. Make Sure Your Employee Feels Rewarded
Money's nice, but your employee may be after more than a monetary reward. In addition to paying your employees what they're worth, you also need to give them the motivation they need to do their best.
Your employee needs to know there's a reason they're working so hard. Shortly after your employee was hired, they had a lot of incentive to do well—they were probably happy to have a job and wanted to impress you. Or the work was new and fresh, and that made the job exciting. Or your employee liked that they were learning a new skill and threw themselves into their work.
At this point, however, maybe your employee's outgrown the job. That's what happened to Jordan Goldmeier. Before starting his own consulting business, Cambia Factor (formerly Goldmeier Consulting), Goldmeier worked for an analytics company for two years.
At first, Goldmeier was a star employee, bringing in a lot of new work for the firm and learning everything he could about spreadsheets. But things started to sour as Goldmeier tried to do too much and expanded his horizons beyond what the company was offering. For instance, he secured a book contract to write about building dashboards with Excel, and his boss started to see his star employee as a future competitor.
"He felt I was growing too quickly into where I wanted to be," Goldmeier says of his ex-boss. "He said he saw me there in five years but that I wasn't ready yet. Well, I thought I was." Goldmeier is quick to add that he thinks he could have handled things differently, and he accepts some of the blame for his and his boss's disagreements.
Goldmeier's warning to business owners: "When great employees feel mediocre in their current position, they'll get 'poached' by companies who see their true potential. I started my own company, so I guess I poached myself."
But would Goldmeier have left his former company if his boss had encouraged him to stretch his wings? Not necessarily, Goldmeier says.
"My own speculation was that he was frustrated he couldn't provide me with the work environment I needed, and that was the true source of tension," Goldmeier says of his boss. "He knew if I became fully aware of my capabilities, I would leave the company. So he told me—and himself—I wasn't ready to move on.
"This worked against him in an ironic twist," Goldmeier adds. "Had he realized my potential and provided a nurturing environment, I would have stayed forever."
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This article was originally published on July 21, 2014.