Good Work. Here’s some more.

One way leaders drive mediocrity.

Matt Schellhas


DALL-E: a cartoon of a crate overflowing with stuffed animals

Indulge me a moment while I tell you a story you’ve heard before.

A worker starts a new job. Let’s call her Lisa. She is new, so her manager gives her a nice easy task to start with. She is a good worker, and completes the task quickly. Her manager is happy. Onboarding complete, she now gets the less-easy work that people in her role normally do. She is a good worker, and completes that task quickly as well. Her manager is happy. Clearly Lisa is a great hire and can do more work.

The executives come down with an ambitious new project. New client, lots of money at stake, needs to be done soon. Lisa just finished her task, this is the same sort of stuff she excelled with so far, and is a good worker so her manager gives her the new project. It’s a tight deadline, but Lisa puts in the hours and gets it done. Celebration all around! The company isn’t totally dysfunctional, so Lisa gets a nice raise and a small promotion.

Now Lisa gets all of those projects. They aren’t all quite so ambitious, but she is now the proven expert at that work. Lisa is busy. The work is getting done well. Everyone is happy. The company grows, and more projects come in. Lisa is very busy. Some of the projects are late. That’s okay. There’s a lot going on.

Then it happens: some clear failure that isn’t just being late. That is less okay. Her manager is not a complete idiot, and realizes that Lisa is overworked. They move a few projects to other people so Lisa has less on her plate. Lisa still struggles though. Projects are late. The work is poor. Her manager is not happy. Lisa is certainly not happy. Months go by. The struggles continue. Lisa is disengaged. Her manager tries different approaches, but none of it works.

One way or another, Lisa leaves.

What happened? How did such a good worker have such a downfall?

Two things happened.

The first is garden variety burnout. Too much work. Too much stress. Usually, reducing the stress and giving Lisa time to recover would help that. Many managers stumble here, because even a “normal” workload is probably too much for someone suffering from burnout. But I’m not here to talk about burnout. There are…