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Breakfast Perspective: Watch Out for Whelmers….

At this mornings breakfast forum I was talking about the role of Leaders for Leeds in providing a context where people could learn to be ‘overwhelming’.  It struck a chord with others in the room and they asked me to write a few words for the blog.    Sadly, I am not a man of few words….

There are, broadly speaking, three types of employee in your organisation.

There are the over-whelmers – those people that ‘over-whelm’ you with their energy, skill, passion and enthusiasm. These people are what you need. They provide the foundations on which excellence can be built. However you will need to work hard, very hard, to recruit and retain them. These people have choices about where they work – so why should they choose to stick with you?

Then there are the under-whelmers – those that leave you distinctly unimpressed. These shouldn’t constitute a real problem either – because they are easily recognised and managed.  (You do recognise and manage them don’t you?) As a consequence they either learn to meet organisational expectations or they get fired.  Under performance is easily recognised and can be managed if you have the courage and commitment to do so.

The real dangers are those people that neither over nor under whelm. These are the whelmers. Their work is ‘OK’ without being great. Customers are satisfied without being thrilled. Colleagues have  ‘got used to’ the mediocrity. And the over-whelmers will not want to be any where near them as they sap energy and enthusiasm. They are passion vampires.

The Passion Vampire

And this is the pernicious culture killer – mediocrity. If the whelmers are allowed to carve out a quiet life of mediocrity they will drag the culture of your organisation down to their level.

In the words of the legendary Van Morrison:

“You gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay”

So what should we do when we recognise that we have a ‘whelmer’ in our midst… a passion vampire in the office?

The first thing to do is to look in the mirror.

The person you see is the one who has allowed a human being with energy, enthusiasm, talent and passion (you did check for those things when you recruited them didn’t you) turn into a whelmer.  In order to change their response to your management style, you need to change the way you manage.  Keep on doing what you have always done and you will keep on getting what you always got.

The first step is to invest time in building a relationship with the whelmer.  Let them know that you know they are capable of giving more and ask what you need to do (or stop doing) to help them give of their best.  Don’t just do this once.  Keep doing it.  Regularly. Not just at annual reviews but at least monthly, preferably weekly.  Let them know that you value them and that you want to see them doing well.  Make it clear that you EXPECT MORE.

Secondly focus on the behaviours that they exhibit that make you think ‘whelmer’.

  • Is it that they never accept delegation?
  • Never volunteer to work on projects?
  • Hardly contribute to meetings?
  • Rarely smile or express a positive reaction?
  • Seldom go ‘the extra mile’
  • Never set themselves stretching goals

Get specific about the behaviours and then use feedback to make sure that the whelmer knows exactly what they are doing that causes you, and no doubt others, to be ‘whelmed’ by their contribution.  Give the feedback freely and consistently and make it clear that you expect them to change.  Feedback must be given properly for it to be effective though!

Thirdly spend some time understanding what they are looking for from the organisation.  Most whelmers join with high hopes and every intention to be an overwhelmer.  But as ambition is thwarted and progress is frustrated they slip into the ranks of the whelmers.

Maslow is perhaps relevant here.

Most whelmers at some time wanted to achieve something of importance.  They not only wanted a salary and a sense of belonging but they also wanted to make the world a better place when they chose to work for you.  But you have failed them.  They have recognised that they are unable to achieve this higher purpose in the organisation (no doubt due to resource restrictions or politics) and so have given up on it and settled for the monthly salary and a quiet if unspectacular working life.  Often the whelmers will do their self actualising outside of work where they will show incredible passion, skills and enthusiasm for anything from stamp collecting to binge drinking.

So re-visit their hopes and aspirations for working for you.  Talk to them.  Re-kindle their belief that they can achieve something worthwhile at work and then re-double your efforts through feedback, coaching and delegation to give them the opportunities that they need to be a real force for progress in the organisation.

By helping a whelmer step up to being an overwhelmer not only will you and they have a much better time at work but also productivity is likely to increase by 25-40%.

Mike Chitty is a freelance consultant and trainer in management, leadership, strategy, enterprise and community development who lives in Leeds.