When Smart People Get Stupid

Sometimes the performance of even your best people can start to lag. Here’s how to get them back on track.

Have you ever had a really effective, smart employee just fall off? Maybe he started making bad decisions repeatedly or missing commitments, falling short on performance or blowing it in a meeting or sales call?

From my experience and speaking with lots of other executives, this happens often–and is really frustrating. When your “go-to” person becomes less reliable, the whole business starts to suffer.

First, consider whether medical, chemical, or psychological issues are creating this situation. But if those can be ruled out, what else might be creating this big change in your otherwise strong and competent person?

Overwhelmed or Underwhelmed?

I find that when smart people get stupid, they are either overwhelmed or underwhelmed.

Being overwhelmed doesn’t need to be related only to work. Life is fluid, not compartmentalized: The long list of possible issues could include a sick family, transportation challenges, visiting in-laws, financial stress, or even outside volunteer or organizational commitments.

(And of course, who have the most commitments in their lives? Really effective, highly competent people. Most of us have heard the expression, “If you have a really tough job, give it to a busy person.”)

That all seems obvious, but it took me a long time to understand it’s also important to watch for people who are underwhelmed. When talented people are underutilized, they make mistakes–out of distraction, boredom, and indifference. Over time, the simplicity of their work becomes numbing, and they become less successful at it.

Fix the Problem

If someone you recognize as being highly talented and historically effective is starting to underperform, try this approach.

1. Call it out: I find the direct approach is most effective. Note that this is not an attack license; it is an empathy license. Start out with the acknowledgement of their talent, effectiveness, and past success. Then point out the recent gaps and ask the question, “This recent performance is not like you; what’s going on?” The likelihood is that the person already knows that he or she is underperforming and is afraid that you do as well. This gets it out in the open.

2. Listen and affirm your confidence: Separating out the person and the performance is critical in the conversation. You already know that the person has historically been a good contributor. You can honor that and still address the current shortcoming.

3. Don’t try to be a therapist: It’s not your role to take on an employee’s personal issues; your role is to work through the job issues. Load-balancing, scheduling, finding challenging projects, and managing team interplay are all examples of areas in which you can make an appropriate contribution.

4. Talk through the options: When a person is either overwhelmed or underwhelmed in a work environment, you can work through various solutions. Even overwhelming personal issues can sometimes be accommodated–at least temporarily–with changes to scheduling and workload. Once things are on the table, you can talk through options. One of the options may be separation–but it should be approached, and discussed, not as a a threat but as an outcome of sustained underperformance.

5. Set a time frame for resolution: Continued underperformance is unacceptable; you have to get this person back on track. Discuss and determine when you can both expect to see performance return to previous levels. If you have agreed to make adjustments, then set the schedule for that. The timing should be specific.

Smart people don’t just turn stupid. Something is creating the change in performance. If you deal with the underlying issues, you can usually get that high performer back on track.