How to Manage Whelmers

A whelmer is someone neither overwhelms us with their professional expertise, enthusiasm and commitment, nor underwhelms us with their sheer incompetence.

They inhabit the middle ground of mediocrity.

Whelmers are a problem because they act as cultural magnets and performance benchmarks.  They are the experts in knowing just what has to be done to be seen as ‘acceptable’.  To be given a quiet life.  And a salary.

So what should we do when we recognise that we have a whelmer in our midst?

The first thing to do is to look in the mirror.  The person you see is the one who has allowed a human being with energy, enthusiasm, talent and passion (you did check for those things when you recruited them didn’t you) turn into a whelmer.  In order to change their response to your management style, you need to change the way you manage.  Keep on doing what you have always done and you will keep on getting what you always got.

The first thing to do is to invest time in building a relationship with the whelmer.  Let them know that you know they are capable of giving more and ask what you need to do (or stop doing) to help them give of their best.  Don’t just do this once.  Keep doing it.  Regularly. Not just at annual reviews but at least monthly, preferably weekly.  Let them know that you value them and that you want to see them doing well.  Make it clear that you EXPECT MORE.

Secondly focus on the behaviours that they exhibit that make you think ‘whelmer’.

  • Is it that they never accept delegation?
  • Never volunteer to work on projects?
  • Hardly contribute to meetings?
  • Rarely smile or express a positive reaction?
  • seldom go ‘the extra mile’

Get specific about the behaviours and then use feedback to make sure that the whelmer knows exactly what they are doing that causes you, and no doubt others, to be ‘whelmed’ by their contribution.  Give the feedback freely and consistently and make it clear that you expect them change.  Feedback must be given properly for it to be effective though!

Thirdly spend some time understanding what they are looking for from the organisation.  Most whelmers join with high hopes and every intention to be an overwhelmer.  But as ambition is thwarted they slip into the ranks of the whelmers.

Maslow is relevant here.

Most whelmers wanted to achieve something of importance.  They not only wanted a salary and a sense of belonging but they also wanted to make the world a better place when they chose to work for you.  But you have failed them.  They have recognised that they are unable to achieve this higher purpose in the organisation (no doubt due to resource restrictions or politics) and so have given up on this higher purpose and settled for the monthly salary and a quiet and unspectacular working life.  Often the whelmers will do their self actualising outside of work where they will show incredible passion, skills and enthusiasm for anything from stamp collecting to binge drinking.

So re-visit their hopes and aspirations for working for you.  Talk to them.  Re-kindle their belief that they can achieve something worthwhile at work and then re-double your efforts through feedback, coaching and delegation to give them the opportunities that they need to be a real force for progress in the organisation.

By helping a whelmer step up to being an overwhelmer not only will you and they have a much better time at work but also productivity is likely to increase by 25-40%.

Comments

  1. Sue Talbot says:

    Hi Mike, thank- you for these thought-provoking posts about whelmers. And good to have met you yesterday!
    It occurs to me that some organisations (it grieves me say that I’m thinking of parts of the public sector) , are built on organisational and socio-political cultures of mediocrity and are comfortable with whelmers. The energy and creativity of over-whelmers is threatening and perceived as (sometimes rightly) challenging to the status quo, something to be tamed and caged.
    The “deliverology”regime, as John Seddon describes it, with its attacks on professional groups, mangerialism, corporatism, and, dare I say, strategic plans has in many ways served to reinforce mediocrity, despite the talk of excellence.
    I agree that, rather than organisations/managers helping their overwhelmers focus and channel their energies, people are consciously or unconsciously managed into becoming whelmers. (I would add, with the collusion of other whelmers, and under-whelmers.) I suspect this is often more systemic than we would like to think.
    I don’t disagree with the model you propose – it has a lot of similaries to the model of supervision that I teach and use in social work. My knowledge of the gap between how it should work and what happens in practice (I have been the manager who rearranged supervision, and worse) leads me to suspect it will be quite difficult for public sector managers to consistently change their practice until/unless the whole sector is allowed to develop an ethos that is less prescriptive and risk-averse, more permissive, less about delivering targets for government and focusses instead on creating services with people.

  2. Hi Susie.

    Now we are in rampant agreement. I am more positive about the potential for change with individual managers though – even in the public sector.

    Good to meet you too by the way!

  3. What’s needed is genuine leadership. Whelmers are people too who can and need to be ‘sold’ on any number of things in order to become genuinely motivated to engage in the process of creating success for themselves and those they work with and for. When I say ‘sold’, I am not referring to manipulation; I am referring to ‘selling’ as helping someone make a good decision (on their own as the result of your influence) that really will prove to be in their best interest. Human nature would suggest that people want to feel good about themselves, they want to feel optimistic about their future, they want to accomplish something and become successful. Most people just don’t really have a clue as to what all that means with regard to who they really are and what really is most important to them – and why. This is where the need for real leadership comes in. If you want my opinion of what real leadership is – especially in a business (and even in a not-for-profit) environment – leadership is not only about being consistent in your demonstration of what ‘good’ looks like, but it’s all about finding ways to further increase the return you are able to receive on what you’re investing in your people while you’re working together with them on a daily basis to get the job done on behalf of the customer or client. Leadership involves discovering new and more effective ways to create even greater opportunities for growth and success on the part of each one of your people, your team as a whole, your company, and also your customers. Leadership is all about you being in the driver’s seat when it comes to you ‘being’ and ‘doing’ whatever it takes to insure the success of anyone and everyone who has a vested interest in your organization’s success. Leadership is of no value unless it produces measurable results while developing people (even whelmers) in the process! (By the way, I have never ‘blogged’ before, you’re my first victim.)

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