From the June 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Are you tolerating mediocrity in your work force? Do employees watch the clock and expend just enough energy to squeeze by? Don't be so quick to say "Not in my business." According to Dick Doughton, president of Southwest Performance Group Inc., a Scottsdale, Arizona, training company, "Many managers tolerate exactly this kind of mediocrity. I see it every day." The reason? "Most managers just don't know they can light a fire under their employees."

These days, businesses have no choice but to get the highest commitment out of workers. In an ever more competitive marketplace, only the leanest and toughest will thrive. The big leadership challenge today is getting the most from each employee. If you're not, the question is, What's holding them back?

"Often the answer is `rustout,' " says Steve Buchholz, partner of Minneapolis-based Inventure Group, a human resources training and design firm.

"Many employees just aren't focused on their jobs--they're on the payroll but are [mentally] on vacation every day," explains Fred de Avila, president of Spectra Learning Group, an Irvine, California-based employee development and strategic consulting company. "It's called rustout because it happens over time. Usually it's a slow erosion of effectiveness and commitment." Put plainly, when an employee is rusting out, his performance has sagged into mediocrity--or worse.

Defining Moment

Is rustout just burnout with a new name? Not according to the experts. "Burnout is when you're overused and exhausted; rustout happens when your [potential] is underused and you deteriorate," says Buchholz. Burnout is the biggest worry in cutting-edge industries (computer software development, for instance) because workers can only put in 80-hour weeks for so long before effectiveness collapses. But while burnout gets the greater share of attention, rustout may be the bigger threat: "Every day I'm asked by bosses, `How do we get employees to take initiative, to be more fully involved?' " says Doughton.

But what exactly does rustout look like? An employee has rusted out when he or she no longer contributes much beyond the minimum. When a worker who was once a regular source of good suggestions no longer speaks up, that's a sign of rustout. Ditto for a worker who formerly volunteered for extra duties and was always ready to pitch in during emergencies but now stays out of the action.

More concretely, de Avila says, the signs of rustout are the four "dis"es--disengagement, disidentification, disorientation and disenchantment. "The disengaged employee has quit but stays on the payroll," de Avila explains. "The disidentified employee feels he or she used to be somebody but not anymore. The disoriented employee no longer knows where he fits in--that's not uncommon when employee duties are realigned and reorganized. The disenchanted worker doesn't feel valued. He doesn't feel his talents are recognized."

Sound familiar? Look around your business, and odds are you'll get a wake-up call. Look for employee enthusiasm levels, and compare mental notes with the levels you used to see.

Curing Rustout

Firing rustout victims is rarely the wisest solution, in part because every termination means new costs in hiring and training replacement workers. Also because "if you see a number of rustout victims, this is symptomatic of issues in your organization," says Buchholz. Sure, the present batch of underperformers can be swept out, but what good is that if the next batch soon starts to rust out as well?

Don't think this can't happen: Rustout is becoming epidemic because a chief underlying cause is an inability to cope with the changes--in technology and global competition--in our society. Businesses are setting a furious pace to stay ahead of the competition, but this brisk race has frazzled at least some employees.

Suddenly, people find they have fallen behind, and it seems impossible to catch up in terms of skills. "They've come to the point where they say `Why bother?' " says Doughton.

"The changes have also robbed some workers of their sense of purpose," adds Buchholz. "They no longer understand how what they do fits into the business as a whole, and the result is a drop-off in enthusiasm and commitment." The pace of change isn't likely to slow down, making it all the more critical to find ways to arrest employee rustout.

"The starting point is to talk about rustout with employees who exhibit it," says Buchholz. This means sitting down with each employee to review his or her performance and discuss why it is suffering. The conversation won't always be pleasant; often, employees will resist the "rustout" label. But Buchholz urges managers to persist because a crucial step is to help employees see that they are rusting out--and that they have the ability to end it.

In fact, simply holding this conversation is curative: "Employees need feedback about how they are doing. Many are rusting out but don't know it because the boss isn't giving them honest feedback," says de Avila.

Offer to help employees update their skills, urges Alyce Ann Bergkamp, an adjunct assistant professor at Catholic University in Washington, DC. A key to reactivating any worker is to give him or her the means to elevate current skills--in computers, communications, sales or whatever is most pertinent to the employee's current and future job description. A small investment in training can go far in halting rustout.

While you're at it, "spell out how their work contributes to the business' strategic objectives. Communicate to them how and where their roles make a difference in the company's success," says Doughton. Face it: Employees frightened about their place in tomorrow's company won't contribute at peak levels today. Neither will workers who don't recognize the importance of their jobs. It's management's responsibility to clearly communicate so employees come to work with enthusiasm.

As employees emerge from rustout, provide reinforcement by recognizing their contributions, advises de Avila. Initial steps will be baby steps--just as a rusty wheel begins to move only slowly--but be ready to pour on encouragement. "That's very important in letting employees see that they are valued," de Avila says.

It's not easy work. Bringing employees out of rustout takes concentrated, prolonged attention to the individuals on your team. But the payoff justifies the extra effort: "Help your employees out of rustout, and they will be grateful, and you will have a work force filled with high energy," says Doughton. "That means a big competitive advantage."

Contact Sources

Inventure Group, (612) 921-8686, fax: (612) 921-8690;

Southwest Performance Group, 3260 N. Hay-den Rd., #108, Scottsdale, AZ 85251, (602) 941-8829;

Spectra Learning Group, 16 Technology, #210, Irvine, CA 92718, (714) 753-1688.

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, log on to (http://members.aol.com/rjmcgarvey/).