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%.