When a Star Slacks Off

A top performer who decides to coast can inflict damage on an entire organization

What do you do about an employee whose performance has declined from stellar to mediocre? I have tried talking to him, but six months have passed with no improvement and he is beginning to affect the team. Is it time to let him go? —Anonymous, Nairobi, Kenya

Six months of warning seems a little brief for a person who once turned in stellar results, but still, we'd have to answer yes to your question. Because you're onto one of the incontrovertible facts of organizational life. It is very hard to reverse the course of sliders—and that's what you have, a high achiever who has checked out—before they begin to suck the team into their negative energy field and drag it down. Indeed, we've seen it time and again: Sliders pollute.

We're not suggesting, of course, that managers dismiss all their sliders at dawn. Sometimes high performers hit a wall and need time to regroup. They might be dealing with a personal crisis, like sickness or a divorce. Or they might be bored and in need of help finding more challenge on the job.

But temporary sliders are the exception. Typically, these former achievers enter their descent and stick with it. And the reason is simple: They think they can. That is, they believe their bygone achievements protect them. And often, they're right. Many organizations have employees who are sacred cows: the scientist who, 15 years back, created the breakthrough compound upon which the company is built; the art director who once won the industry's highest creative award. There's the slider whose armor is the company's largest client, which loves him for a terrific idea he had five years ago, and the slider whose claim to fame is that she was there, taking customer orders and going on midnight pizza runs, when the company was run from a garage.

Whatever the reason, sliders usually begin their decline imperceptibly. They start contributing a little less and then show up a little less, too. Nothing happens—there are a few hushed conversations but no consequences—and so the downward spiral continues. Eventually, the underperformance and the lack of reaction become embedded, and the slider lands in a bubble of silence and acceptance.

The problem with this dynamic is that because sliders are often company heroes, especially to old-timers, their behavior sets the tone. For newer employees, less familiar with a slider's past glories, the impact can be even more damaging. Sliders show them that do-nothing employees are permitted. Either way, a slider's mood and underperformance can deaden the pace and rhythm of a business. They round off the edge you need to win.

It sounds like you're not there yet with your slider, but chances are you will be soon. So, yes, let him go now so he can find an organization that reenergizes him. And know that you'll be sending a critical message to your staff. When it comes to performance, the past may be nice to recall, but nothing matters like the present.

This month, after nine years of education in the U.S., I will return to my family's company, where my father has asked me to lead a big turnaround. Most of the upper management team remembers me as a boy of 17. Any advice? —Alister Aranha, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

First and foremost, recognize that the managers who remember you "as a boy" know full well that you are an adult now—and you're taking over. Indeed, they've been expecting your return for ages. And most of them will fall into line. For that, perhaps some credit goes to your hierarchical culture. But even if you weren't returning to the Middle East, employees at family companies know the score. You're the boss now.

Our advice then, is to not go heavy on establishing your authority. Instead, spend time listening to team members, demonstrating how eager you are to hear their perspectives and engage their intellect. Let them know you are truly open to new ideas. Show them you're a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all.

Look, if you're going to turn around the family company, your new job is very straightforward. Those managers are at your command, but you still need to win their hearts and minds.

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