Plateaus are invisible enemies.
Hitting a plateau feels like writer’s block, or hitting the wall midway through a tough workout, or like endless monotony with no clear path forward. If we’re not constantly achieving, we feel like we’re failing -- even when we might be able to progress with the right coaching. Since that failure feels embarrassing, we don’t talk about plateaus with our managers or teammates.
As a leader, your job is to identify when someone on your team is starting to plateau so that you can coach appropriately. But how do you know if someone’s plateaued if they won’t bring it up?
Signs of a Plateau
People on your team could be feeling the beginnings of a plateau at any time, hidden in plain sight. While performance may not yet be visibly slipping, teams and individuals that plateau tend to exhibit signs of complacency:
- Lower engagement with their teammates
- Poorer standards of quality on their outputs
- Rushed projects
- Lack of focus
- Lack of energy
Complacency quickly turns into a lost sense of purpose, and with it, a lack of motivation and engagement. Once you reach this point, performance issues are likely to surface. And If there is no attempt to adjust and correct once the wall has been hit, blame may be - fairly or unfairly - put on their environment, leading them to leave your organization.
Your goal: tackle the plateau before performance issues become problematic. And definitely before it leads to attrition.
Why Plateaus Happen
Growth isn’t linear. From the outside, growth might look like a straight line up and to the right, but from the inside, it’s a jumbled tangle of ups and downs that (hopefully) eventually lead to growth.
Temporary plateaus can be part of a normal growth process. Short plateaus are nothing to fear -- in fact, they’re productive because they serve as a brief interlude to recharge for more growth. The leader’s role in a healthy plateau is to keep that interlude from turning into inertia. Give your employee space to take a breath, then help them run when they’re recharged.
Not all plateaus are productive, however. Sometimes an employee plateaus for less-than-helpful reasons, like:
- Lack of variance, interest, or challenge in their day-to-day
- Unresolved frustrations or resentment on the team
- Lack of opportunities to grow within their role or within the company
- Insufficient coaching
- Uncertainty over the value of their work
- Misalignment between the employee’s sense of purpose and the company’s vision
It could even be a conscious decision -- sometimes, advancing in career just isn’t someone’s top priority in life. An employee might decide they’re okay with how good they are at something, turn on autopilot, collect their paycheck, and stop improving. This is referred to as hitting the “OK plateau”, and it’s super common. In some fields, that’s not a huge problem. In others, a lack of progression is effectively regression and must be mitigated.
Regardless of why your team is plateauing, it’s in your best interest as a leader to try to empower your employee to push through in the right way at the right time.
How to Coach Someone Through a Plateau
Managers and leaders can have a huge impact in shortening plateaus. With the right coaching, a plateau can be more productive and less frustrating for all involved.
While sustained plateauing is a cause for concern, more often than not it’ll serve as a wake-up call telling you to shake things up or try something new.
Here’s how to foster newfound motivation during a plateau:
- Change their responsibilities
- Rethink recognition
- Improve cross-department collaboration
- Create new opportunities for development
- Introduce written reflections
Change Their Responsibilities
If your team isn’t feeling challenged, they’ll lack a connection to the work they’re doing. A lack of challenge happens when a job role becomes one-note, making it too easy to run on autopilot.
Changing an employee’s responsibilities gives them more (and different) opportunities to develop, avoiding a plateau. As a manager, one of the most effective ways you can overcome that is by dishing out the right responsibilities to the right people.
To do that, align someone’s areas of ownership with their zone of genius. In a 1:1, ask your employee which tasks give them energy and which tasks feel exhausting. Sometimes, a 5-hour task can be more invigorating than something that takes 10 minutes but saps your motivation. It’s not always about the amount of work, it’s about how that work feels to the employee.
To change responsibilities, you might have to involve multiple teammates. It’s best to address shifts in job roles in the setting of a performance review so that everyone has a chance to talk about what they love about their jobs and what they wish they could hand over to someone else. Chances are, one teammate might be dying to stop owning a project that another is excited to take over. This doesn’t have to be a major job shift -- it might be a simple project shuffle that makes all the difference.
When you’re shuffling responsibilities, make sure to give ownership of work-related goals to the right people. Ownership of goals shouldn’t live with the manager, it should live with the person responsible for the work. If someone has zero input to the work they’re doing, it’s unlikely they’re going to care about that work -- and they’ll eventually plateau. Employees perform best when they feel a strong connection to purpose, and ownership of goals helps foster that purpose.
You can also transfer responsibility by being less visible as a leader.
Refrain from unnecessary micromanagement, like dictating tasks step-by-step or asking to be cc’d on every email. Instead, open up non-invasive lines of communication. Ask for high-level check-ins like a weekly performance recap or a daily “What are you working on” and only course-correct when necessary. In giving your team member more autonomy, you create more autonomy for yourself.
Recognition doesn’t have to be complicated. People thrive when they feel like they’re being heard, and sometimes, that’s all it takes. Elevating a plateaued employee’s voice can reignite motivation by reminding your team member that their work -- and voice -- have value.
To elevate more voices, encourage everyone on the team to contribute to meetings by opening your meeting agendas. Ask your team to suggest agenda topics. Let your employee drive their 1:1. Using shared, collaborative meeting agendas will get more varied ideas on the table while proving your commitment to making sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion.
Sometimes, people plateau because they don’t know where they stand or how they’re doing. Everyone wants to know how their work contributes to team success, and once-annual performance feedback is not enough. Continuous feedback is key.
In order to provide continuous feedback, you need a system in place to collect valuable, actionable responses. Our team provides weekly updates to their goals and self-determine if we’re on-track. We provide context to those updates so that any team member can quickly see what’s going on with a project or initiative. This gives our leadership an opportunity to acknowledge great performance and realign the team whenever necessary. With continuous feedback, plateaus are spotted early and mitigated quickly.
Pull from performance recaps, daily or weekly check ins, goal updates, and 1:1 meetings to find opportunities for recognition. A simple acknowledgement that you read and appreciated an update or check in goes a long way.
If you want to take it a step further, positive feedback can be incredibly powerful when shared publicly. Systems like Teams and Slack make it easy to publicly recognize a team member for their accomplishments. Sharing successes with the entire organization leaves no doubt that someone’s work is valued.
Strety Users: Automate 360 feedback 2-4x/year so you’ll have a well-rounded read on your team’s performance when it comes time for annual reviews
Improve Cross-Department Collaboration
Cross-departmental collaboration adds newness and variety which are crucial to finding a new sense of motivation. But the real impact of collaboration comes from pushing people outside of their comfort zone.
Once someone gains exposure to the real work of other teams, they may identify new skills to develop or an interest in new responsibilities. An engineer might find themselves excited to help customers solve their problems, which could lead them to consider product management. Or a support agent might discover they enjoy leveraging their product knowledge to help sell the product’s benefit to future customers, leading to an interest in sales or marketing.
Working alongside other teams gives exposure to different ways of thinking and new approaches to problem solving. This is not a new concept.
Here’s a personal anecdote: I’m a Customer Success Manager. I once traveled to a conference with a front-end developer and got a lot of exposure to how he worked. His approach to solving a customer problem was vastly different than mine and seeing that gave us each a newfound understanding and respect for each other’s role. It also showed us how wildly ineffective and inefficient communication can be across departmental lines. That exposure and improvement in communication was directly responsible for quicker time to resolution for our customer’s problems.
Lastly, cross-departmental collaboration eliminates unnecessary siloes. In any organization, finding the time to assess whether there’s a better approach to a process can be very difficult. Getting fresh eyes on old processes could lead to asking, “is there a better way we can do that?” Giving individuals the opportunity to ask those questions and make changes that improve your processes decreases the risk of plateauing for employees and organizations alike.
How you implement cross-departmental collaboration will vary depending on your business, but it has enormous potential to help individual team members and the organization at-large avoid plateauing.
Create New Opportunities for Development
Stagnation will lead to a plateau. It’s your responsibility to help your people see the ways which they can develop to avoid stagnation in the first place.
As a leader, your role is to encourage employees to talk about their future. Start by discussing their career goals in your weekly 1:1s. If you aren’t having weekly 1:1s, start there! Once you know what an employee hopes to accomplish, you can coach them to achieve their goals.
To create new opportunities, expand their professional network by introducing them to professionals already doing what they’re interested in trying. Share resources that have helped you. Help them find quality training courses and create a budget to pay for it.
Once you’ve found opportunities together, hold them accountable; make sure they’re taking advantage of you as a resource. Collaborating on an employee’s development will build trust and, once again, prove to them that you are invested in their growth.
Strety Users: Set-up ‘Career Development Opportunities’ as a 1:1 Recurring Agenda Item so you can continually discuss any ongoing or upcoming opportunities with your direct report
Introduce Written Reflections
A performance recap is a written self-summary of one’s work. Recaps must be performed regularly, typically at the end of a workweek. They aren’t just about what an employee did and what they’re planning to tackle next -- recaps provide an opportunity to reflect on the work experience itself. Encourage your team to write openly and honestly about where they felt challenged, what they were proud of accomplishing, and what didn’t feel great. Invite them to share their recaps with you and, when appropriate, their teammates. Regular recaps have far-reaching benefits for both the leader and the employee.
For the employee, it provides an opportunity to see what they’ve accomplished. It’s easy to pass through a workweek without acknowledging growth. Slowing down, reflecting, and writing gives you a system to fuel a sense of purpose. An employee also has a chance to self-identify areas for improvement, which leads to more motivated action than if those areas for improvement were suggested by someone else.
As the manager, you’ll learn what motivates your team through their recaps. You’ll understand what type of work are they proud of accomplishing -- is it a company-led initiative or figuring something out on their own? Are they excited to learn and develop new skills? Do they love collaborating or are they happier working solo? Does the work they’re doing fall within their Zone of Genius, or are they constantly drained by simple tasks? What can you do to give them more of the work that gives them energy, and take exhausting tasks off their plate?
You’ll also learn what eats at your team. What types of issues linger? What causes toxic stress? Is there someone or something that’s in the way of their growth?
All these insights makes you a more informed manager and provide you an amazing opportunity to give better feedback. You can’t apply one size fits all approach to understanding the needs, motivations, and challenges your team is facing; you have to start by asking questions. Once you ask, you can begin to guide, but not before. A performance recap gives you actionable insights to move your team forward in a systematic way.
Strety Users: Set up a weekly private Check in to ask your team how their week went. Always comment to acknowledge the writing and provide a little feedback. If a response requires a deeper discussion, add it to your next 1:1 meeting.
Plateaus are inevitable, but they don’t have to be a problem. It’s up to you and your leadership team to find new ways to inspire and engage employees. The most important thing in helping your team through a plateau is communication and collaboration.
Your role is to help an employee feel secure in their challenges while suggesting solutions. And if you can do that, you’ll be accomplishing much more than just solving your team’s plateau problem. You’ll become a stronger leader in your own right!