Managing People Experiencing a Mid-Career Slump
Finding Ways to Re-Energize Team Members
Trevor used to be the kind of guy who said "yes!" to every new project, who dug deep with his research, and delivered well-thought-through reports. He was an energetic part of the team, and people came to rely on him and his experience.
Nowadays, Trevor's silent in meetings, he's reluctant to take on new work, and he can be hard to track down when you need him. He's absent mentally, too, and it's not just a phase. He's simply not the happy, constructive and productive co-worker he used to be.
So what's changed?
Your team member has "lost his mojo" and you'll need to find out why, for both your sakes. But the good news is that Trevor has a fair chance of recovering ground, and even reaching new heights – if you can support him and show him the way.
Just as college students might experience the "sophomore slump" after their freshman burst of energy, many professionals can fall into a slump during their careers. This can take them and their managers by surprise, as it comes after years of high performance.
In this article, we'll look at how a "mid-career slump" develops and what the symptoms look like, so you can spot them early. Then we'll introduce some simple approaches to help you tackle, and guard against, the causes.
What Causes a Slump?
It's perfectly normal to start a new job full of drive and enthusiasm but to be unable to sustain the pace. When we begin, we're willing to "go the extra mile," and we want to learn and experience as much as we can. So it's no wonder that, after several years of operating at top speed, we get tired, bored or even cynical.
Perhaps our excitement wanes and we stop wanting to develop as we slide into doing just the minimum to get by. This is especially true if we're juggling new responsibilities outside of work, like child or elder care.
By the time we reach the middle of our career, we're in the danger zone for burnout and might want to make changes to protect ourselves. If we've been successful, the increased expectations could be weighing heavily on us, too.
Meanwhile, our workplace is more competitive and less supportive, as our co-workers jockey with one another for promotions and the top assignments. But we've "been there, seen it, done it" already.
If our role is monotonous or goes unrecognized, we'll be looking for something different in life to stimulate and satisfy us. We need a change, but it can be hard to know exactly how to achieve it, so we sink into a slump.
Signs of a Slump
Different people will experience and express a mid-career slump differently, just as they will other stages of life. But there are some classic symptoms to look for.
The clearest telltale sign is a lack of enthusiasm, particularly in someone who was once thrilled to come to work. If he or she is now sighing and clock watching, and finds it hard to drag himself into work on time, something is amiss.
When she's no longer volunteering for extra meetings and events, and has stopped suggesting creative approaches to problems, you have another clue. And you might notice her becoming sullen or withdrawn in place of her previously chipper, sociable self. Worst of all, if she's not meeting deadlines, and the quality of her work is sliding, you've got a problem.
Solutions for a Slump
As with all problems, the sooner you face them, the more chance you have of finding a solution. So, don't ignore the signs, or just hope your team member will "snap out of it." Instead, take steps promptly to investigate and address his behavior.
Explain privately and carefully to her what you've observed, and, in a supportive way, say that you are concerned about both her and her performance. Be clear and specific here: vague feedback is too easy to refute and won't help you solve the problem. But avoid simply delivering blame. Remember that you're trying to understand what's going on and why, so that you can deal with issues appropriately.
He might be surprised, horrified, angry, or relieved to have this conversation. But if he feels he's in a safe space and can acknowledge the slump, he'll have taken his first step on the road to recovery. Now it's time for you to probe a little, to figure out what's behind his decline.
But be careful. You might already be racing ahead in your own mind, and are at risk of jumping to the wrong conclusions. You could lead her easily, if inadvertently, towards confirming your thoughts. Instead, use "clean language" in your questions.
For example, avoid asking questions like:
- Is the slump about home or work? (Thinking, does she need a different balance, is she unwell?)
- What about other people? (Thinking, is she lonely, or being bullied or distracted?)
- And how do you find your responsibilities? (Thinking, are they too challenging, or not challenging enough, or are there just too many?)
Instead, try questions that include his own words, and that encourage him to answer honestly, and perhaps surprisingly:
- You mentioned you were feeling "wrung out." What kind of wrung out is that like?
- What else can you tell me about being "left out"?
- And what happens next?
Whatever the problem, show empathy and use active listening techniques, so as to build understanding and trust between you. This way, your team member will more likely be open and honest with you, and it'll be easier to collaborate in moving forward.
A Shared Approach
A slump is a serious matter that might have developed over some considerable time, so it's unlikely to be quick or easy to fix it. But it's not all down to you! Some issues will be out of your control anyway, especially if they don't start in the workplace. Others will demand creativity and determination from your team member.
You can also make change possible through the way you manage your team, especially if other people's roles, competence or behavior are part of the problem. Be sure not to deal with this slump in isolation but, instead, follow up any wider issues you uncover, too.
He might benefit from talking with someone else too – a mentor, or even a counsellor or physician, perhaps from your company's employee assistance service.
With such a comprehensive network of support and resources in place, she can begin to tackle her stress, clarify her vision, understand her strengths and weaknesses, create some goals, and develop new approaches.
Why Should He Bother?
You might need to help your team member find meaning in his role. He may have no idea where he fits in the purpose of the wider organization. He could believe his contribution is so unimportant that no one would notice if he left today!
So go back to basics, and explore with him why his job exists. Who and what relies on him doing a good job?
Time for a Change
It could be appropriate to change her role, a little or a lot. For example, a project that stretches her thinking and skills, or a secondment to a different team or location, could be just the stimulus she needs. And formal training might well spark in her a renewed energy and interest, while bringing benefits to the wider team too.
If he's really outgrown his role, would a promotion be possible? (Be sure it's a "real" job with value to the team, not a token gesture.) You could also investigate opportunities outside your department that he could work toward – it would be preferable to losing his talents entirely from your business.
But if you're concerned that the problem is a negative and blocking attitude, be careful not to reward it. Look instead at whether a performance agreement might help build her sense of accountability.
The purpose of all this effort and activity is for your team member's performance to rise, so be sure to set him goals and monitor his progress. Then you'll be able to spot what's going well, and what's still a struggle, and give him timely feedback.
If you see old problems continuing, or new issues arising, you can reassess the situation and act accordingly. Meanwhile, giving the right reward for an achievement can work wonders for a person's motivation, inspiring her to do even better next time.
Be on the lookout for team members who used to be strong performers but are beginning to decline or withdraw. They might be suffering a mid-career slump.
- Share your observations with them in a supportive way.
- Build trust, and work together to identify the underlying issue.
- Facilitate and encourage their own problem-solving skills through coaching.
- Tackle any wider issues in your team that you uncover.
- Refer them to other sources of help, too, especially if the problem originates at home or is health related.
- Help to re-engage them at work through setting new goals, providing training, suggesting secondments, or changing their roles.
- Monitor their progress, give them feedback, review your solutions, and reward their achievements.
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