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Helping the plateaued employee reach a new level of confidence.

Helping the plateaued employee reach a new level of confidence

For many employees, the time comes when all career movement ceases. Some feel unchallenged, while others simply don't have the motivation to move upward. It is management's responsibility to pull the best from staff members at such times. Fortunately, this isn't difficult when you are prepared with a game plan and a little understanding.

* Definitions. Plateaued employees, one observer has written, are those who reach their promotional ceiling long before they retire. [1] Structural plateauing occurs when opportunities for promotions end. The hierarchy in most institutions is designed like a pyramid, leaving room for only a select few at the top. Therefore, everyone eventually plateaus. [1]

"Retiring in place" is not the same as obsolescence. The latter refers to employees who fail to learn new skills or use progressive techniques. Others may refer to them as "dead wood." Very few individuals who reach a plateau fall into this category.

In a survey by the Commerce Clearing House and the American Society of Personnel Administration, nearly half of the respondents said that plateaued or obsolescent senior employees constituted a moderate, great, or very great problem. More than a third of the employees were plateaued and about 13% were considered obsolescent. [2]

Content plateauing refers to a lack of job expansion, or the point at which a job loses its challenge and becomes routine. The situation is more amenable to creative modification; helping employees overcome its dead-end quality challenges the skills of management. Supervisors and managers can minimize the number of people caught in this trap by developing dual career ladders. In this way, laboratorians can be promoted without assuming major administrative responsibilities. [3]

Staff members' responses to plateauing vary markedly. For some, it represents a tender trap; they continue to contribute eagerly. Others quit and leave; still others "quit" and stay. This last category contains problem employees who ooze resentment or frustration. Most of the plateaued fall between these extremes.

The contented. These staff members like most aspects of their job, which they consider challenging and fun. They look forward to going to work and describe it as exciting. [4] A typical example is a senior microbiology technologist who enjoys the daily routine. Twice she has turned down offers to be promoted to supervisor. She tells her associates that the hospital couldn't pay her enough to take on the problems of management.

Another case of a pleasantly plateaued employee is a technologist in the chemistry department who wanted supervisory status but was passed over. His bitterness was intense but brief. Now he is comfortable in his groove. Unfortunately, however, he doesn't achieve self-actualization from his job. His real interest lies in woodworking. All his spare time and money go into his workshop. He keeps his job in the laboratory just to put meat and potatoes on the table.

Although this technologist dislikes change and avoids stress, his work ethic calls for putting in an honest day's work. He accepts change and is a docile follower--as long as his superiors don't hassle him about career development. He plans to remain where he is until he retires.

Some employees are bored by, or simply dislike, most of their assignments. Yet an aspect of the job makes them maintain a modicum of enthusiasm. They may feel strongly about contributing to patient care and departmental goals, for example; supportive relationships with their supervisors help to maintain their morale. Many staff members derive satisfaction from participating in professional associations. [4]

One hematology technologist is tired of her routine work, but has never lost her fascination with abnormal leukocytes. She "ohs" and "ahs" every time she studies a leukemic patient's blood film. In her spare time, she can be found with her nose buried in a hematology atlas. She delights in sharing her observations with new employees and students.

The worst thing her supervisor could do would be to remove her from the microscope. On the other hand, her morale would get a boost if she were given teaching responsibilities related to differential blood counting.

The discontented. Many of these individuals are chronic complainers. They're bitter. They fault everyone but themselves for their plight. If they are near retirement, their conversation deals almost exclusively with that topic.

These individuals remind everyone about the limited opportunities for promotion in their institution. They can often be heard to say, "I only work here." They wail when educational funding is reduced, even though their own efforts at self-development stalled long ago.

Their pessimism is contagious. They may be ringleaders of a group of malcontents or confirmed loners. Their negative attitude annoys managers. Coworkers are uncomfortable around them.

Since they have not developed professional expertise and most of their skills are no longer in demand, their self-perceived low marketability is real. The double bind reinforces their sense of powerlessness. They rationalize their status by expressing regret about having selected a career in the laboratory.

* Executive responses. At one extreme are employers who fire their plateaued employees. At the other are those who hang on to their "dead wood." Those who routinely clean house avoid the plateau problem, but such a policy is inhumane and eventually self-defeating. Managers who tolerate or ignore obsolescence can also get into trouble.

A caveat: Don't prejudge people as hopeless; you may be wrong. Do get rid of nonperformers who can't be salvaged.

Managers and supervisors can take an active role in bringing out the best in plateaued employees (Figure I). Try the strategies that follow:

Flatten the pyramid. Reduce the number of managers. Then be sure to increase the salaries of those who remain. The more "horizontal" the organization, the greater the number of positions that carry significant responsibilities.

Add rungs to the ladder. One hospital group established three professional nonsupervisory levels for medical technologists. [3]

Provide job security. Highly successful Japanese employers believe strongly in retaining the people in whom they have invested time and money. They train, train, train. [1]

Award title changes. These incentives are regarded by some as being short-lived puffery, yet often they have a motivating effect in lieu of a promotion. One morgue attendant stood a little taller when his title was changed to scientific associate. Employees called "coordinator" frequently prefer to be called "technical director."

Post job opportunities. This act encourages lateral moves. Transfers at the same level assure employees that the organization cares.

Early retirement and demotions. Even these moves can be designed to be positive. Some people want out, whereas others would appreciate less responsibility, especially when their outside interests escalate or retirement is in the offing.

* Plums. Organizations tend not to reward the plateaued, even though they are the backbone of every organization. [1] When it isn't possible to grant the traditional rewars of promotion and salary increases, the organization should present highly regarded substitutes. Verbal appreciation combined with public and symbolic recognition may be almost as welcome as a fatter paycheck.

Be frank about opportunities for promotion when hiring, orienting, and counseling. Be particularly careful when talking to highly sought-after candidates. Warning: Don't let yourself hire only leaders.

Plateauing need not eliminate the possibility of personal growth. Offer opportunities for training and development. Few organizations provide enough continuing education for their employees to remain up to date or to switch to different work. [1] Include incentives to keep skills current. [2] Encourage staff to assume new roles, such as that of mentor or counselor. One underused award is educational sabbaticals. Education rejuvenates. Returning to school full time for a semester can be far more rewarding than taking a series of courses while going to work every day. [1]

Plateaued employees must earn respect to continue making contributions to the organization and to gain satisfaction from an expanded role. [1] This role may or may not involve new responsibilities. More important, it means having more autonomy, which translates into having more control over how they do their work.

Like other employees, these staff members need to know the organization is aware of them, holds them in esteem, and values their contributions. If they sense their jobs are no longer important, they will no longer enjoy doing them.

Supervisors can provide the re-assurance they need. It doesn't take much to make people feel respected; it just requires a little thought. Pay attention to them. Nothing is worse than being ignored. Being included in decision making enhances an employee's self-respect. Staff members can have a say by participating in quality circles, committees, and focus groups.

* Look for signs. Learn to recognize the signals of a plateauing problem and to select the appropriate remedial response. If a plateaued person becomes unproductive, appears dissatisfied, and shows symptoms of distress, don't hesitate to raise the issue. Candidly discuss the employee's status and prospects. Manages owe employees an honest perception of their standing.

Direct employees' attention to the satisfaction and achievements they can earn. Take the conversation to spheres of work and life in which they can win. While telling the truth, you can also create a mood that is positive, forward-looking, and constructive. [1]

Encourage people to use their knowledge in new ways or to increase their achievements outside the workplace. Such activities might include serving as liaisons between the laboratory and community groups or holding a teaching appointment at a local educational institution.

Focus on their daily assignments. What kind of work do they prefer? Encourage them to identify options that will create satisfying lives. Would cross-training or rotating positions help?

Advances in technology suddenly eliminate many tasks, making the skills needed to perform them redundant. Serious implications ensue for inflexible employees who derive all their satisfaction from such tasks. Try hard not to eliminate the small fragment of enjoyable work that keeps some employees happy. If you must, then substitute something else. For example, one microbiology technologist was upset when her lab director elected to send out their virology work, which she had enjoyed. She perked up when she was reassigned to an AIDS safety project.

Create opportunities for employees to make decisions, a responsibility that often leads to greater confidence. Encourage initiative. Continue igniting the flame that sparks these employees' work contributions. [4]

Caution: Don't change a satisfactory situation. At the same time, don't ignore those who are happy. To stay that way, they too need your support and counsel.

* Performance feedback. Promotion procedures must be fair and exhibit minimal politics or favoritism. Give honest appraisals. Typically, reports are too good. The coinage of praise ultimately becomes debased. Inaccurate self-evaluations eventuate and unrealistic expectations develop.

Successful strategies for dealing with plateaued employees involve executive and supervisory activities. A supportive organizational climate in addition to collegial interpersonal relationships, will aid in building morale. Let your staff know that you care; strive to help them be the best they can be. Above all, don't give up hope on plateaued employees. With a caring supervisor at hand, they needn't feel stranded, alone, and unappreciated.

[1] Bardwick, J.M. "The Plateauing Trap." New York, AMACOM, 1987.

[2] Geber, B. Plateaued and obsolescent employees. Training 26: 69, February 1989.

[3] Stevenson, J.W. A career ladder for MT growth. MLO 21(6): 43-46, June 1989.

[4] Kaye, B. Are plateaued performers productive? Personnel J. 68: 56-65, August 1989.
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Title Annotation:includes goals of coping with plateaued employees
Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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