Tackling Your Blockers






We’ve all been there.  You have an employee who is performing adequately (i.e. meets expectations) and has no desire to change the role he is in. He has been in the role for seven years (and counting) and has prevented many high potential employees from taking the role who could do the job better or who would benefit from getting a key experience necessary for promotion. We refer to this person as a “blocker.”

A blocker is someone that is “blocking” others from moving into a position that could do the job better, or that would fulfill a developmental activity or a key step in a career path.  The person is often referred to as a blocker because they don’t want to move out of the role.  He (or she) may enjoy the specific work he is doing, he may have a great relationship with his manager, or he may be very comfortable in his role with no desire to learn something new or take on more responsibility. 

There are three common scenarios that companies face with blockers.

  • He is a high performer, however the role would give a high potential a critical experience.
  • He is a good performer, but there are other individuals who could do the job better.
  • He is an underperformer and is blocking others from promotion.

Let’s look at these one a time.

High Performer, Role Provides High Potentials with Critical Experience
When the incumbent is a high performer, you must proceed carefully.  He is great at what he does and the company does not want to lose him; but the company has nowhere else to immediately place him. Further, he may have met his potential, and therefore, is not being considered for other roles.

Recommended action: You may have a limited view of what this person’s contribution could be for the company. You recognize that he is a high performer. It is likely that his skills could be transferred to other roles or other parts of the company.  Speak with the “blocker” to find out what his career goals are.  Find out what kinds of activities he enjoys doing.  Then help him understand that he is highly valued and that you believe that he has lots more to contribute to the company, but that his contribution in this role has maxed out.  Then, jointly, investigate other roles in the company.  Bottom line: A high performer wants to feel that he is making a difference. If he does not think he can provide any additional value to the role he is in, it is likely that he will be open to changing positions.

Good Performer, Other High Performers Could Do the Job Better
It is particularly difficult for companies to take action when a blocker is a good performer.  The person is not really doing anything wrong and they are meeting expectations.  Further, transferring this person to other parts of the company could be found to be challenging.  Managers, after all, don’t want to hire so-so performers.

Recommended action: Communication is always the first approach. Talk to him and find out what motivates him.  Find out if he is happy in his current job.  Most likely you will find that he is not “excited” about his role.  He may be open to change, but never pro-actively pursued a new role for himself.  As they say, he got “stuck in a rut”.  Before taking any action, explore other opportunities/positions in the company that this person may be suited for.  Bottom line: Ideally, you should aim to move or transfer this person in the least painful way, i.e. without having to go through an interview process.

Incumbent Is an Underperformer
In many ways, this is the easiest of the three scenarios.  If someone is underperforming he should either be let go, or another more suitable position should be identified and he should be transferred to that role (assuming minimum qualifications are met).

Recommended action: Articulate clear expectations of the role and conduct detailed performance reviews highlighting specific examples of when performance was sub-par.  Establish a performance improvement plan with a defined timeline and revisit the plan regularly.  Bottom line: After a reasonable attempt at helping the employee improve performance, if unsuccessful, the person should be seriously considered for termination.

A final consideration — There are positions in every company that are either critical to certain career paths or that provide high potentials with a key experience.  If you can identify what those roles are, you will be able to treat them as “rotational” assignments and set the expectation accordingly.  For example, at ARAMARK, the safety leader role is designed as a 2-year rotational assignment.  The role offers employees with the opportunity to develop core leadership competencies and exposes them to senior business leaders. It is also recognized as a career builder for high potentials. To read the entire case study, “ARAMARK’s Safety Leader Program: A “Living Laboratory” of Leadership Development,” click here.    

Share your experience with a “blocker.” Which of the three categories did he/she fall in and how did you solve the problem?   


Andrea Derler

Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

3 thoughts on “Tackling Your Blockers

  1. Thank you for such a thorough definition of blockers, Kim. I was just looking for this and your blog was right there. Keep them coming! How about one on Critical Path Successor?

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