When the Thrill Is Gone: Dealing with Decommitted People

One of the biggest challenges managers face is how to respond when they notice a direct report has decreased motivation or confidence to do a job. We call this decommitment.

For the most part, leaders avoid dealing with decommitment, largely because it is such an emotionally charged issue and they don’t know how. When they do address it, they often make matters worse: They turn the not-engaged into the actively disengaged! It doesn’t occur to many leaders that something they or their organization is doing or failing to do may be the cause of the eroded commitment. Yet evidence suggests that’s often the case.

Lack of feedback, lack of recognition, lack of clear performance expectations, unfair standards, broken promises, being yelled at or blamed, and being overworked and stressed out are just a few reasons people lose their motivation and commitment.

So how do you, an enlightened leader, deal with a decommitted direct report without making matters worse? The most effective way is to catch decommitment early—the first time you see it—before it gets out of control and festers. Then take the following steps to get back on track.

Step 1: Prepare Before You Meet

Before meeting with your direct report, clarify the specific performance or behavior that you want to discuss. Do not attempt to address multiple issues at once. Gather all the facts that support the existence of the decommitment. If it’s a performance issue, quantify the decline in performance. If it’s a behavior issue, limit your observations to what you have seen. Don’t make assumptions or bring in the perceptions of others—these are sure ways to generate defensiveness.

Now identify anything you or the organization might have done to contribute to the decommitment. Have you ever talked to the person about their performance or behavior? Have you made performance expectations clear? Does the person know what a good job looks like? Have you been using the right leadership style? Is the person being rewarded for inappropriate performance or behavior? (Poor behavior in organizations is often rewarded—that is, nobody says anything.) Is the person being punished for good performance or behavior? (People often are punished for good behavior—that is, they do well and someone else gets the credit.) Do policies support the desired performance? For example, is training or time made available to learn needed skills?

Once you have done a thorough job of preparing, you’re ready for Step 2.

Step 2: Schedule a Meeting, State the Meeting’s Purpose, and Set Ground Rules

Scheduling a meeting is vital. It’s important to begin the meeting by stating the meeting’s purpose and setting ground rules to ensure that both of you will be heard in a way that doesn’t arouse defensiveness. For example, you might open the meeting with something like this:

“I want to talk about what I see as a serious issue with your responsiveness to information inquiries. I’d like to set some ground rules about how our discussion proceeds, so that we can both fully share our perspectives. By working together to identify and agree on the issue and its causes, we can set a goal and develop an action plan to resolve it.

“First, I’d like to share my perceptions of the issue—what I’m noticing and what I think may have caused it. I want you to listen but not to respond to what I say, except to ask questions for clarification. Then I want you to restate what I said, so that I know you understand my perspective. When I’m finished, I’d like to hear your side of the story, with the same ground rules. I’ll restate what you said until you know I understand your point of view. Does this seem like a reasonable way to get started?”

Using these ground rules, you should begin to understand each other’s point of view on the issue. Making sure that both of you have been heard is a wonderful way to reduce defensiveness and move toward resolution.

Once you have set ground rules for your meeting, you are ready for Step 3.

Step 3: Work Toward Mutual Agreement and Commit to a Plan

The next step is to identify where there is agreement and disagreement on both the issue and its causes. Your job is to see if enough of a mutual understanding can be reached so that mutual problem solving can go forward. Both of you probably won’t agree on everything—but see if there is enough common ground to work toward a resolution. If not, revisit those things that are getting in the way, and restate your positions to see if understanding and agreement can be reached.

When you think it is possible to go forward, ask, “Are you willing to work with me to get this resolved?”

If you still can’t get a commitment to go forward, you need to use a directing leadership style. Set clear performance expectations and a time frame for achieving them; set clear, specific performance standards and a schedule for tracking performance progress; and state consequences for nonperformance. Understand that this is a last-resort strategy that may resolve the performance issue but not the commitment issue.

When you get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, it is normal to feel great relief and assume that the issue is resolved. Not so fast.

If you have contributed to the cause of the problem, you need to take steps to correct what has been done. But you may not be in a position to patch things up if it was the organization that created the problem. In this case, a simple acknowledgment of how your direct report has been impacted may be enough to release the negative energy and regain the person’s commitment.

Once you finally get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, you can go to Step 4 and partner for performance.

Step 4: Partner for Performance

Now you and the direct report need to have a partnering for performance discussion in which you jointly decide the leadership style you will use to provide work direction or coaching. You should set a goal, establish an action plan, and schedule a progress-check meeting. This last step is crucial!

Resolving decommitment issues requires sophisticated interpersonal and performance management skills. Your first try at one of these conversations is not likely to be as productive as you would like. However, if you conduct the conversation in honest good faith, it will reduce the impact of less-than-perfect interpersonal skills and set the foundation for a productive relationship built on commitment and trust.

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