Managing the Movement Part III: Reversing Regression

How cool would it be if after you played an active role in helping somebody learn how to do something they didn’t know how to do … they just did it! They didn’t lose interest in doing this particular thing. They didn’t get distracted by some sort of “non-thing related” issue or challenge. They could just be counted on to “do this thing” the way they learned how to do it, forever and ever. You know what you would call that set of circumstances? You would call it a fairy tale or a fantasy because it would have limited (if any) association with reality.

This is the third and final blog in our series on Managing the Movement. The first blog addressed the role of the leader in helping others build task-specific competence:

  • Managing the Movement Part I: Building Competence
    • Bottom line: All other things being equal, competence develops at what can best be described as a methodical pace. Developing the experience necessary to build a specific skill set takes time, and there are very few shortcuts worth taking. The good news associated with that journey? Once a person has achieved a level of mastery for a particular task, the skills acquired have some staying power (very few people lose competence overnight)

The second blog in this series focused on the role of the leader in helping others establish and cultivate the willingness to perform a particular task at a sustained and acceptable level. Willingness is operationally defined as task-specific confidence, commitment and motivation.

  • Managing the Movement Part II: Developing Willingness
    • Bottom line: When learning how to perform a task for the first time, confidence is the key component of the willingness equation. And suffice it to say it can be a real roller-coaster ride as individuals progress from novice to expert

And what would a leadership blog be without at least one blinding flash of the obvious? So here goes:

  • Most leaders far prefer the dynamics of development (i.e. moving from right to left on the graphic above) as opposed to the dynamics of regression (i.e. moving from left to right)

Primarily they prefer development for two highly predictable reasons:

  1. The Chance to Provide Recognition – Helping an individual learn how to perform a task at a sustained and acceptable level for the first time usually translates to the leader providing the benefit of his or her experience, then recognizing the follower for implementing those suggestions/directives
  2. The Chance to Receive Recognition – During development there is usually a fair amount of recognition flowing from the follower to the leader as well:
    • “Wow … thanks … I never could have done this without you!”

Not so with regression. The underlying cause of left-to-right movement is frequently a function of a follower that is bored, has lost motivation and/or commitment to complete a task to standard, or perhaps is in the middle of working through a personal challenge outside the workplace.

So what’s a leader to do? Clearly there are no magic answers in the back of the book on this one, but at a very high level we would offer the following advice:

  • Be there … and be there quickly – There can be a tendency when a top performer misses a conference call, is late for an important meeting or turns in work that is “acceptable” but not up to historical standards to over-empathize and remain in empowerment mode (e.g. “She’ll be ok; this really isn’t a pattern; with as much as she has done over the years to raise the bar around here the last thing I’m going to do is start nit-picking with a proven performer”)We can assure you of one thing based on our collective experience — this strategy (regardless of empathetic rationale) will only accelerate the regression (and potentially ignite a few other fires in the process). A familiar quote from our founder, Dr. Paul Hersey, comes to mind:
    • “Treat people where they are … not where they used to be or have the potential to be”

    In that regard we strongly suggest the minute you as a leader see behavior that is inconsistent with a person’s performance history … intervene!

  • Ask … Listen … and Hope
    • Ask – The good news about intervening early is that you can use an approach that is both person-centered and non-confrontational. Typically a participative intervention with a strong performer that is starting to move from left to right is categorized by open-ended questions with significant degrees of freedom:
      • “You ok?”
      • “Anything you want to talk about?”
      • “I just noticed ____ and I thought to myself ‘that’s just not you.’ What’s up?”
    • Listen – However skillfully (or awkwardly) your question comes across, the key to a successful regressive intervention is to listen intently to the response. Are you getting information about the part of the iceberg that is visible above the water line? Or are you hearing about something (perhaps for the first time) that is well beneath the surface but undoubtedly the true source of the issue? Either way, the key to successfully resolving the challenge is a function of your ability to guide the discussion, get as much information as you can possibly get and avoid any initial impulse you may have to prematurely solve the problem and share your insight
    • Hope – With all due respect to the multiple authors that have scribed books titled, “Hope is Not a Strategy,” we would suggest that hope plays a crucial (and somewhat ironic) role in successfully reversing regression. Because after you ask and while you are listening, you absolutely have to hope that whoever you are talking with is telling you the truth about their iceberg. The ironic part of this equation is that the amount of personal power and trust you built with this individual during development (i.e. when you were helping them build task-specific competence, confidence and commitment) will determine how comfortable they feel opening up about the real reasons they are regressing and have lost/misplaced their motivation to perform



  1. From your experience what are regression indicators? (List at least two.)
  2. Regression isn’t necessarily confined to top performers losing motivation (R4 – R3). As a matter of fact, regression can take place at several key junctures of an individual’s development journey (e.g. R2 – R1; R3 – R1; etc.). List some of the underlying causes for different types of left-to-right movement:
    1. R2 – R1
    2. R3 – R1
    3. Other