Tell us if this sounds familiar: You give a high-performing colleague a new opportunity that initially motivates and inspires them. They excel at performing their new tasks for a while, but then, it happens — they get more comfortable, which then turns into complacency or worse. They’ve reached, suggests CEO adviser Whitney Johnson, the peak of the learning curve —the process through which employees master their role at work.
“At the low end of the curve is the discomfort (and excitement) of the unknown,” writes Johnson in her book Build an A Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead them Up the Learning Curve. “At the high end of the curve is the confidence (and dullness) of mastery. In the middle, on the steep part of the curve, is where the magic happens: where employees are happiest, learning quickly, and highly engaged,”
Here are three steps she suggests to help keep your employees keep reaching for that happy middle, no matter how long they’ve been on the job:
First, it’s important to acknowledge that the reason why an employee needs to move on from their current responsibilities is because they’ve already mastered their current tasks. “Recognize them for it, like you would for someone graduating from college,” Johnson writes. “At the beginning of this learning curve, you asked what needed to happen for this person to achieve their potential, and this helped reverse-engineer their success. Now evaluate what has happened because they were in this role. What abilities — both their acquired skills and their native gifts, or superpowers — helped them excel?”
Work with your employee to find new ways for them to apply their skills and gifts in-house. “What is the reasonable next step that aligns with the experience they’ve gained? What are the goals they have in mind? What kind of challenges do you think, and do they think, would keep them innovating and producing?” Johnson writes. “Let them know that soon their restless brain will be at the bottom of a new curve with lots of room for growth. Ask them to commit in return to a strong finish in their current role.”
It can be just as scary for a supervisor as it is for an employee to encourage a shift in their responsibilities. Shifting the team dynamic risks losing productivity, but supervisors “will face this prospect anyway if their talent roams away in search of greener pastures,” Johnson argues. “Deliver on the promise inherent in your relationship: They’ve given their all toward the team’s success. Now help them jump to a new curve where they can continue to succeed.”