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  • Esther Er

Wind-up Employees

I remembered my early childhood growing up in Brunei. My parents used to buy me wind-up toys. These toys come in all shapes and sizes. You would wind-up a frog that will start to move. It was fun (my era!). Strangely, all wind-up toys were made in Hong Kong then!


It was only in secondary school, where I learned that winding up a toy creates potential elastic energy. The elastic energy is then converted to kinetic energy when you release the toy.


Today, if you were to give a box of wind-up toys to a young kid, he will be too embarrassed to show it to his friends. Times have changed to give way to more sophisticated computer games on our mobile devices. You find parents giving these devices to their kids to watch movies or play games so that they can eat in peace.


What have wind-up toys got to do with employees? One of the biggest mistakes most supervisors make is trying to pray for a miracle that their wind-up employees will change. They might but it requires a tremendous amount of effort and you need to figure out whether you have the time for it. Here is an example of a conversation between an MD and one of his managers.




“Hi Tom, how is Jeremy doing? The last time we discussed, he exhibited very little evidence of having any interest in his job. He just wanted to do the minimum each day, and I have not heard of him showing any interest in doing any continuous improvement initiatives," asked the MD.


“Hi June. I tell you. I wanted to give up on Jeremy as well. He gave me so many heart pains. I had to spend so much of my time working with him. There are times I felt the left side of my chest stiffen up because of repeated reminders. I had to have a crucial conversation with him just last week. I can see that there are some signs that he is improving," said Tom.

“Good to know that Jeremy is making an effort to change,” said MD.


A month later.


“I see Jeremy going back to his old self again. What he presented this morning was just not acceptable. The worst part is that he is oblivious of his own performance, as though he is in a bubble," said the MD.


“I will need to work on him again. I thought I had made some progress with him, but he has gone back to his old self again," said Tom.


“Please work with him to get him back on track as he is becoming a disruptor," said the MD.


Two weeks later.


“How is Jeremy?” asked the MD


“I had another two weeks of frustrations. I almost gave up on him this time round. I did raise my voice at Jeremy, which I regretted. However, once he saw how upset I was, he seems to make some efforts to change," said Tom.


“This is probably the sixth time that you are trying your best. You cannot continue to do this. In the long term, it will have an impact on your heart," said the MD.


“I know, but I am not giving up. Jeremy is such a pleasant person. He gets along with everyone in the team. He livens up the department but clearly he has no passion in his work," said Tom.


You can already guess what has happened. Tom is now in a vicious cycle of trying his best to make Jeremy change. In the organization, some wind-up employees will push their supervisors to the brink of getting a heart attack. Once they see that their supervisor has lost their cool they will then move a “little bit.” Some supervisors will see it as progress and will stop pressuring them.


The wind-up employees will then slide back to their disengaged self once they have exhausted their kinetic energy. They have already mastered the process, and it looks something like this:




Some supervisors do not realize the amount of investment that they are investing for a wind-up employee. Precious time that is supposed to be working on their work and that of their supervisors. Some supervisors get so heated up after cycles of frustrations that they do not realize that it is beginning to affect their health.


Those that do not watch these bouts of sustained frustrations may end up getting more severe health issues. Wind-up employees do not care whether they are hurting their supervisor. Making their supervisor succeed was never in their “radar screen”. They are more concern about their own “space”. Wind-up employees will continue to use the same proven strategy with the next supervisor that comes along.


You have to decide the following if you have a wind-up employee:


1. How many cycles of frustrations are you willing to endure?

2. Is sacrificing your health a worthwhile cause?

3. Why do you have to be the victim?


Do not feel that you had to get it right because you were responsible for bringing this person into the team. The individual has to do their part in helping themselves. You have already given a great opportunity to the individual by offering them a job. The individual must be responsible for doing their part to make sure that they continue to add value to the company.


Article donated by Raymund Chua, Head of HR, Asia Pacific, Heraeus

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