Demma’s Employee Engagement Curve: How managers can fight performance atrophy

I have a hypothesis that most employees naturally follow the below engagement curve. Without intervention from management, employees who begin in an enthusiastic honeymoon stage eventually slide into negative contribution and finally end their tenure as a bitter and disruptive veteran. All things naturally decay, and performance is no exception to this rule. It’s the manager’s job to fight this natural atrophy of their team through encouragement, coaching and development.

The enthusiasm of a new employee, if the manager made a good hiring decision, lasts for about a year. I call this the honeymoon phase. The new associate is eager to make a name for themselves and make an impact on the business (see my previous post about new guys). Managers don’t need to do much to inspire enthusiasm during the honeymoon.

After about one year the honeymoon begins wears off, and the employee’s enthusiasm begins to fade. Their performance plateaus or maybe they hit a slump. They’ve naturally become more efficient in their position over the past year or two, which is another way of saying they are now taking short cuts. Their passion isn’t what it once was and they sometimes appear to be just “going through the motions” at work. They’re in the sliding phase.

Eventually, the employee’s engagement and attitude are more often negative than positive. They complain, which they never used to do, about things outside of their control. Other, perhaps newer, employees are turned off by the attitude of the now bitter veteran who is disrupting the team. Their performance suffers and both the employee and the manager consider terminating employment. What happened?

This is why companies pay managers to manage people. Incentive plans, IT systems, and HR policies help, but people need people to inspire them to fight the natural performance erosion of attrition.

I realized this when I was studying employee turnover last year. I found that a certain amount of employees left the organization in their first year if they were the wrong cultural fit or if they lacked the skills necessary for the position. These separations were hiring mistakes. Separately, I found that more tenured employees (three years or more) left the organization for reasons like poor performance, violations of policy, or a bad attitude. But how could this be? Why would these traits manifest after three or five years of employment? Did the employee ever perform well and follow the rules with an enthusiastic attitude? Of course they did. A manager failed them along the way.

The first weapon managers have to combat this natural engagement decline is encouragement. Tenured employees want to know that their manager values them and believes in their abilities. They want their manager to recognize their positive contributions and growth over the years, and they want the manager to encourage more contribution and growth. As a manager, it can be hard to encourage a sliding performer. It’s tempting to criticize and tell the employee how their performance is poor relative to their own prior standard. But criticism does not turn around a slider.

Negative traits also creep into employee behaviors when the employee feels stagnant in their career. A manager can fight this through coaching and challenging the employee. Big goals work well. Tenured associates cannot achieve big goals by doing things the way they always have. Everyone needs a coach to challenge them and candidly ask new behaviors and improved results.

Tenured employees also want to feel they are still developing. This might mean exposing employees to support departments or delegating some of their boss’s work to them. Development could also mean increasing their current work load or assigning different types of clients to them. Changes in assignments and exposure to new ideas keeps people fresh and engaged.

Most of all, managers can’t give up on their employees. A cycle of hiring new employees and seeing their performance gradually decline until they need to be replaced is tremendously inefficient for a business. People work for people. And great leaders inspire people to continuously improve.

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