The Off Year

Shaun White is the Olympic halfpipe snowboarder who defies gravity, physics, and every other limitation known to mankind. His performances are nothing short of breathtaking. In 2006 and 2010 he won the gold medal. In 2014, he went home empty-handed. Nothing, Nada.

Well, he obviously had peaked and was on his way down. Maybe he should have been jettisoned, so money, time and effort could have been spent on the next Shaun White. Then comes 2018, and he dazzles the world again, winning gold with one of his best scores ever.

Good performers can indeed have an off year. Think about why this could be. Perhaps an individual took on a much more challenging position and had a steep learning curve. Or, even without a job change, she realized she still needed to upgrade herself or develop new capabilities which would be needed going forward.  (During his early glory days as a golfer, Tiger Woods literally removed himself from tournament play, while learning and perfecting a new swing. Let’s just say that during that period of time, his results would have been considered very unsatisfactory.)

Another reason for a performance derailment could be personal. Something very, very important has happened in life, and the worker consciously made that issue his number one priority, and results took a hit. I have watched more than one person decide that helping a parent or child cope with a debilitating illness would now take center stage over becoming number one on a stack ranking list.

Growing people, which includes periodic performance assessments, is a long term relationship issue, not something that just conveniently meets an annual deadline. “What have you done for me today?” is a catchy slogan, but also implies yesterday no longer matters. Really? One’s consistent performance over time and increasingly deeper commitment to the organization is worth nothing?

So as a leader, how do you handle someone’s inevitable off year conundrum? Is it time for the immediate warning and the performance improvement plan? Or is it time for some real coaching.

I have actually heard supervisors make the accusation that their once great performer has decided to simply coast going forward, to rest on his/her laurels. And then they strongly reaffirm how, “there will be none of that going on as long as I’m in charge. When I put her on a PIP, she’ll get the message and start getting serious about work again.” Sounds like the words of a poor leader trying to be a tough guy.

Be mindful that your beliefs and biases will determine your response to this situation. If you believe that an off year is the sign that the person no longer cares and is merely attempting to take advantage of you or the system, your response will be much different, than if you are genuinely concerned and want to help the person get back on track.

Should you encounter this dilemma, you will need to ask yourself what is most important – you, or the one struggling. If you are the center of attention, your employees lagging results may make you look bad, and you cannot tolerate that. So, it will be time to immediately crack down, with threats and other punitive measures becoming the go-to strategies. However, if your concern is about the other person, you will take the time to have some dialogue, understand the circumstances, and invest the time needed to coach and support. The goal is to help get that former star back on track, so all of you can reap further rewards from his/her return to greatness.

Everyone will most likely have an off year, including you. Be there for them as a leader, to help, guide, and support. And remember, as Shaun White showed, there is nothing better than a great comeback story!


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