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I get asked some version of this question repeatedly in my leadership training workshops – "How do I elicit high performance from someone who is close – and coasting – to retirement?"
Sometimes the employees being asked about are doing an adequate job but no more, no less; other times they've checked out, they just haven't left the building. And often (but not always) the question comes from Generation-X managers or Millennial supervisors.
Truth be told, this situation is a challenge. In many cases, the usual incentives to get employees to go above and beyond – promotions, more money, opportunities for growth – simply don't apply any more. And even if your coasters are performing below expectations, firing them will likely leave you with a huge lawsuit on your hands. So are you out of luck? Not necessarily. There are still several concrete actions you can take to motivate this segment of your work force.
Start by looking within
Could you be contributing to the problem? Are you perhaps guilty of ageism? Honestly examine some of your own beliefs and assumptions. Do you think that older workers are inflexible and more resistant to change, especially technological change, than younger workers? Do you believe that they're slow and unproductive? Do you feel that they're not as intellectually adept and therefore more expensive and time-consuming to train?
Even if you've not voiced such opinions, your underlying attitude is perceived by others and it may be one of the reasons you are not getting the level of performance you desire from your more seasoned employees.
Acknowledge and value their experience
Respect their experience. There is no substitute for genuine respect if you want people to do good work. While that's true for any age, it's even more meaningful for this demographic because here is where it often gets missed. And it isn't enough to value it, you need to verbalize it. Acknowledge it – tell them that you recognize and value the experience they have and that you'd like the benefit of their knowledge.
Ask for their input; use them as sounding boards for new ideas. If they were around when a similar process change failed five years ago, don't you want to know why? Float ideas by them before making your final decision. "I'm thinking about changing the way we do this …What do you think?" You get a "double bonus" with this approach – a more engaged employee and an improved problem-solving process.
Use them as mentors
Take further advantage of their experience by engaging them as mentors. Pair your veteran staff member with a younger rookie employee. Sure there'll be some hiccups as the two generations sort out differing work ethics and test relationship boundaries, but the advantages far outweigh the negatives. In addition to obvious knowledge about the industry, corporate and company policies, veteran employees also know a thing or two about hard work, loyalty and overcoming setbacks – all information that would benefit younger folk just starting out on their career journeys.
But the mentoring relationship is a two-way street. Your older employees will learn from the Millennial generation as well. After all, what employee couldn't benefit from more exposure to open-mindedness, risk-taking and work-life balance? When veteran workers mentor the rookies, they become more involved and engaged, which means that overall performance and productivity will increase as well.
Appeal to their pride
If all else fails, appeal to your employee's pride of self and work. Make it not about performance but rather about the opportunity to go out leaving a legacy. Clearly offer two alternatives to your employee. No. 1 – you can choose to coast until retirement. Or No. 2 – you can make this the best two years (or whatever time period) of your career by being a role model for others in the department, and leave a legacy when you retire. Discuss what he wants to leave behind that he would be proud of – either a specific project or passing his expertise and experience on to a replacement.
Paint a verbal picture of the retirement party – "Don't you want your colleagues to make genuine speeches about how grateful they are for your contributions rather than be secretly relieved that you are leaving?" Talk about how depressing and exhausting it will be for him to "go through the motions" for the next two years – "Why not make these the most rewarding years of your career?" Inspire him: "Imagine how you'll feel when you look back and realize that you ended your career at the top of your game?"
While this conversation is guaranteed to catch your employee's attention, it is also true that he may still select the "coast to retirement" option anyway. But at minimum, you've got him thinking about it and at least aware of the choices he is making.
Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author who turns managers into leaders, drawing upon her more than 17 years of experience as a leader in corporate Canada. Reach her at www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.
Ms. Gupta-Sunderji was interviewed after this column was published by Ed Hand of 1310 News Radio Ottawa. Click here to listen to the interview.