The pitfalls of performance plateau – and how to overcome it

It’s easy for motivation to start lagging, but there are ways managers can help ensure productivity remains consistently high, says Martin Kilduff

We’re a mere six weeks into a new year, and while some teams have hit the ground running, others might be already struggling to hit their productivity goals. Performance plateau happens to even the best, most productive of teams. The tell-tale signs are always the same: your team members lack motivation, they’re not engaged with each other, and productivity is flat. As team leader, you are faced with the challenge of motivating the team to increase performance, given the prevalence of stretch goals and lean budgets. 

Although performance plateau can affect any team, it is a particular issue for established teams in bureaucratic workplaces, which are hierarchical environments with rigid sets of rules and processes. Such teams are often highly cohesive and stable, but it is precisely this stability that puts them at risk of plateauing, as team members tend to get stuck in familiar routines of social and work interactions.  

So, what do leaders and HR teams need to consider if they feel their team is suffering a performance plateau? Well, there are a few things to consider…

The impact of the hybrid environment 

Performance plateau isn’t a new phenomenon but, if we’re not careful, it risks being exacerbated by the switch to hybrid and remote working brought about by the pandemic. Team members can easily perpetuate unproductive routines and, when we’re all hidden behind our screens, it’s easier for people to feel like their work goes unrecognised, leading to a drop in motivation. 

On top of this is the concern that hybrid working may lead to fragmentation within teams, as employees that meet in the office form a ‘team within a team’ which remote workers are excluded from. In addition to this sense of disconnection from the team, remote employees may worry that they are being overlooked professionally, affecting their productivity.

The importance of social network relationships

As a leader, an important aspect of your role is to motivate and inspire your team members to break out of this plateau. This is often challenging, particularly when the obvious solutions such as rewards and incentives tend to be beyond your control. A recent paper that I worked on looked specifically at this issue and found that informal relationships between team leaders and their team members have a key role to play in overcoming performance plateau. Leaders who forge combined friendship and advice relationships with many team members motivate their teams to increase work performance. This is particularly the case for teams that otherwise exhibit few friendships among team members; and for teams in which members actively hinder each other’s work.

Our research shows that, in these situations, formal authority alone is insufficient to change team performance, meaning if they want to drive change, leaders must work on building their interpersonal relationships of friendship and advice provision with their team members. Although it is undeniably essential that team leaders are competent and can provide expert advice, there’s no point giving advice if your team members won’t heed it. Friendship popularity reinforces trust among team members, making them more likely to listen to and implement your advice.

Conquering performance plateau

How can leaders overcome performance plateau and get their teams back to optimum productivity and motivation? This is easier for those leaders that already have strong informal relationships of friendship and advice with their team members. The good news is this is more than possible for other leaders – it just takes some time and effort. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but start with the simple things, such as showing an interest in peoples’ welfare, in order to build trust. Notice the things your team members are struggling with and make an effort to give them the resources they need. Make sure they know they can come to you with any questions or concerns, and genuinely listen to and address anything raised.

Naturally, building these relationships is more complicated in a remote environment, as we’ve lost those water cooler moments and opportunities for casual conversations over coffee. However, the pandemic might also provide a strategic opportunity to shake things up, to make changes to the way the team operates, and to create a sense of togetherness and mutual support. 

The key takeaway from this is that it’s not enough for leaders to be either liked or regarded as an expert to facilitate performance change. To win the trust and respect of your team, and thus their commitment to improvement, leaders must be both trusted and respected. This might be a long road, but it’s worth it, and it starts with forging meaningful relationships with all your team members.

Dr Martin Kilduff is professor of organisational behaviour at University College London