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How to manage your coasting employees

In an ideal world, motivation wouldn't be a problem. Everybody would be a top performer all the time. But real life is messy and complicated. There are all sorts of things that can make or break a person's sense of engagement.

Fed up employees don't always turn to quitting their jobs, though. Sometimes, it's just easier to disengage and keep getting paid. So, let's break down all you need to know on coasting at work.

Let's start with a simple question; what do we mean by coasting?

An employee is coasting when they're just doing the bare minimum to get by. They probably aren't about to get fired, but they're not trying to advance their career either. But it's important to recognise that coasting isn't some binary switch. There are degrees of severity involved.

Not all coasting is inherently bad. Plenty of people go into work every day, meet their targets and clock out with no intention of trying to get promoted. They might want to get home to family, or maybe they have a second job to get to. Or it could be that they just aren't career-minded. And, let's face it, there are plenty of valid reasons for not wanting a promotion.

But, on the more severe end, you have people who are showing up to look busy. For whatever reason, they've checked out, resigned to going through the motions to collect their pay.

The prevalence of coasting at work

The Great Resignation shook things up. So, you might think all your dissatisfied employees have bailed for greener pastures. But evidence would suggest otherwise. In January of this year, a Gallup study found that half of US employees are neither engaged nor disengaged. And, to make matters worse, engagement in the US has dropped for the first time in a decade.

This supports earlier findings from the 2021 iteration of the CNBC|Momentive Workforce Survey. Among other things, the survey found that 39% of employees described themselves as "coasting" compared to the 42% who described themselves as "thriving."

Common signs of a coasting employee include:

  • Only meeting their minimum targets.
  • Never taking the initiative.
  • Not meaningfully contributing in meetings.
  • Lack of interest in feedback.
  • Poor time management.
  • Pretending to look busy.
  • Cyberloafing (messing around online rather than working).

It can be difficult to know how to stop coasting at work when you spot it. But communication should always be your first port of call. If you've spotted some of these signs, always start by talking to the employee in question.

How coasting employees impact businesses and people

At its most serious, coasting can be a real spanner in the works. Poor engagement lowers productivity and raises absenteeism. And the estimated pricetag on that?

Over a third of a given employee's salary down the drain. But the problem isn't only that it burns a hole in your pocket. Out of control coasting can end up affecting your work culture too. Every employee contributes to workplace culture, for better or worse. Nothing disengages new hires more quickly than colleagues who've already checked out.

But it's not only the business that stands to be affected. When an employee coasts to the point of neglecting responsibilities, the rest of their team has to pick up the slack. One person not pulling their weight increases the strain on everyone else.

Worst case scenario, this can drive your high performers towards quitting or even full-on burnout. And, needless to say, burnout and turnover aren't good for your bottom line either. But, to understand how to stop coasting at work, you need to understand the underlying causes.

What causes coasting at work?

Again, not all behaviour that you could describe as "coasting" is bad. You could describe someone as coasting if they stayed in the same position in a company for years. But that doesn't exactly harm the business, especially if they're still passionate about their work.

The typical example of this is a doctor who turns down a promotion to Chief of Staff. It would take them away from the patient care they love, so of course they say no. But a less romanticised version would be an employee who's happy with their simple office 9-5. They'll do that work to the best of their ability, but never reach for anything more.

Not everybody lives to work, and it's unrealistic to expect otherwise. But what about the more problematic examples of coasting in the workplace?

It would be so easy to say that employees who coast through their jobs are lazy, and leave it at that. But we all know it's not anywhere near that simple. Coasting is a consequence of low employee engagement. And, if you've read any of our engagement-focused content in the past, you'll know engagement has a lot of influences.

Employees might have issues with the company's culture. Or it may even be a problem with your management style. A lot of managers fail to give their people enough recognition, for example. And, when your boss doesn't recognise your hard work, why bother putting in the effort?

It could even be that they're just struggling. It's worth reassessing the workloads you're putting on people to make sure you aren't slowly crushing them.

Or maybe it's a lack of career development that's to blame. Pass someone over for a promotion one too many times and they're bound to get disengaged. Even if they don't quit outright, they can still lose their motivation to keep trying.

Sometimes, it's not even as major as a promotion or a raise. Career-minded people need forward motion. That can mean teaching them new skills or changing up their responsibilities, or even just ongoing feedback and support. In the absence of these things, ambitious employees are bound to get frustrated.

And let's not forget the most concerning cause of sudden, unexplained coasting. Workplace stress turning into employee burnout. If your high performers are suddenly losing steam, that can be the warning sign to pump the brakes.

In fact, it could even be none of these things. There's always the possibility that some personal issue is affecting their work life. They might have had a bad breakup or a bereavement. They could be experiencing some issue with their physical or mental health. In these cases, it's best not to pry, but offer support however you can.

How to stop employees coasting at work

The first step in how to stop coasting at work should always be to talk to the employee in question. Spotting the signs isn't enough. You need to come at this from a place of understanding, which means hearing their side of things. If you're running a regular employee check-in, then you should already be aware of any ongoing issues. But, even so, it never hurts to have a quick chat face-to-face.

And here are some of the steps you can take moving forward:

Recognition

Your people might be coasting because they don't expect hard work or innovation to be recognised. So, sometimes, your best bet is to be proactive. Keep an eye out for things to congratulate people on, like impressive sales figures or a quick project resolution. Taking the time to personally show gratitude can make all the difference in the world.

But recognition needn't all be your responsibility. You can take a hand off the wheel, so to speak, by giving people the means highlight each other's accomplishments. Peer recognition can actually be more effective than manager recognition, according to SHRM.

Feedback and support

Checking in regularly can be your best defense against things like coasting. Offering ongoing feedback means you can be way more proactive about supporting an employee's professional development. Sometimes, it's the lack of that feedback and guidance that makes people disengaged in the first place.

But it's not just about the feedback you're giving to them. The feedback they give you is at least as important. A regular check-in gives employees a voice and an outlet. So you're much more likely to be aware of any problems. And, even if one catches you off guard, checking in can help ensure there's a dialogue.

Strengths-based management

One reason employees end up coasting is that the parts of their job they hate detract from the parts they excel at. Sometimes, the best way to manage someone is to give them the tasks you know are in their wheelhouse.

Gallup research has previously shown that 90% of strengths-managed groups saw increases in sales and profit, not to mention employee and customer engagement. They also saw decreases in safety incidents and the rates of employee turnover.

Job crafting

Job crafting is basically like if strengths-based management and employee autonomy had a baby. It's going one step further by allowing employees to (within reason) define what their job is.

The fact is that job crafting goes on whether you allow it or not. People do small things outside their job description because it helps someone else. Or else they find that doing certain tasks in an unusual way helps to motivate them.

Job crafting can help employees to improve their outlook and take more pride in their work. It can even help people in your organisation to bond socially by helping each other. These things make it the perfect antidote to coasting at work.

Mentorship

When someone's at a loose end, it can really help to talk to someone. But, when your job's the problem, it can be difficult talking to a manager about it. That's where an employee mentorship can really make a difference.

A mentor is someone with experience who can guide an employee. They're a sounding board for frustrations, a source of advice, and someone in their corner who will have their back. That means they're someone your employee can talk to if their work is getting them down. And, sometimes, what people really need is a non-judgmental ear.

So, there you go. That's the gist of coasting in the workplace and what you need to look out for. We hope you find our tips useful, and if you're ever struggling, remember: It's all about communication. If you don't reach out, people will either coast forever or eventually bail on your company.