5 Strategies To Coach Employees Who Have Become “Institutionalized”


November 29, 2010

~ He’s just institutionalized…The man’s been in here fifty years, Heywood, fifty years. This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man, he’s an educated man. Outside he’s nothin’ – just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried…these walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on ’em. That’s ‘institutionalized’…They send you here for life and that’s exactly what they take, the part that counts anyway.~ Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding

I was watching the Shawshank Redemption this morning.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth your time.  It’s one of those stories that has so many poignant lessons about relationships, trust, fear, motivation, and well, life in general.  Even though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, one part really hit me this morning.  There is an older gentleman, Brooks, who has spent his whole life in the prison.  When it comes time for him to be paroled, he breaks down and wants to commit a crime in prison so that they’ll be forced to keep him.  His friends prevent him from committing the crime and Brooks is paroled.  Brooks tries to fit in out in the real world, but having been in prison so long, he just cannot adjust.  He eventually commits suicide.

Institutionalized in the Workplace

The movie made me think about the workplace and employees who have worked their whole career at one organization.  As I was growing up, my dad taught me that it was an honorable thing to choose a career and then stay with that employer for the entire time.  Think about it, many people born in the 1930’s- 1950’s have been able to accomplish this.

There are certainly employees who fit this description and who stay engaged and are the best representatives of  the organizational culture.  But, most workplaces have those employees who are just there and going through the motions.  They do this year after year.  They continue to come to work and just do the minimum to get by.  They might as well be carving a hash mark into the desk to represent each passing day.

So, what can a manager do with these employees to turn being “institutionalized” into a positive?

Coaching Strategies for Managers

  • Be Direct- Don’t ignore the situation.  Even if your organization has a “contribute and stay” mentality, a lesser engaged long-term employee can cause real morale issues in your department.  Often, these employees have been there many more years than you have as the manager.  The only approach is to be direct.  Have that tough discussion and find out why they stay, what would make them more challenged at work, what makes them feel valued, etc.  Then, act on what you learn.
  • Find their strengths–  When you get to know your staff on a more personal level, you may learn that they use skills outside of work that will benefit the organization.  For example, if you have someone who is a deacon at church or who is very involved in planning and organizing at functions for their children’s school, capitalize on those skills and use them in that capacity on the job.  When you recognize someone’s skills and praise them for is, they will be more engaged at work when they get to use the skills.
  • Loan them out– With the economy the state it’s in, we’re all working to do more with less.  This includes staff.  But, if you can find opportunities to give up a long-term staff even for a couple days a month, you can improve their engagement.  Loan them to another department to help expose them to another type of work.  This will also spread the good will and demonstrate your willingness as a leader to look out for the organization as a whole.   Each time the employee returns, have them tell about the experience at the next staff meeting.  Other people on your staff will see the enthusiasm and may learn something as well.
  • Job Shadow–  I recommend using this strategically.  For example, if you have an employee who could use a specific type of coaching, pair them up with someone from another department who does really well in that area.  This will be a non-threatening way to coach the employee.  I also use this technique when I need to assess how a particular employee is doing in their role.
  • Capture their knowledge–  One of the things that managers struggle with is losing the long-term employee’s knowledge when they retire or resign.  A way to address this is to find ways to capture that knowledge before they leave.  Start a private collaborative site online and teach your staff how to use it. Ask them to write about everything from processes to ideas on how to handle issues.  Not everyone is a writer, so provide training on how to write and edit.  Make sure they feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, then recognize and praise them when they do.

By focusing on ways to improve engagement of long-term employees, you may actually turn them into your greatest asset. What techniques have you used as a manager in order to coach your staff?  Share them in the comments.


  • You mean there are people who stay at a job for more than a couple of years?

    Seriously, too many times when there are guaranteed jobs, the lifers do as little as possible to get through their days and relish the day of retirement. But with pensions going the way of the do do, I see fewer and fewer people being lifers unless there is a reward programme for staying at a job. For me, it would have to be a Rolex President watch for staying in one job for thirty years. But, since I am employed by me, I guess I have to buy my own Rolex watches.

    I like your concept of shaking it up for the lifer. Maybe it would prevent that lifer attitude I generally see with long-term employees. Besides, maybe getting that shell of dust off of the lifer’s skillsets would help make them a better long-term employee, rather than a lifer.

  • Great point! I just had this discussion with my family over the holidays. My dad worked for one company for 30+ years and my sister is going into health care (a field notorious for workers staying with one company for their entire career). They were surprised when I explained that most people in my generation are not going to be in one job for more than 5-10 years.

    Is it still a goal for us to stay with one company? I’m sure that some companies, using your strategies, could make it an engaging, productive, and progressive work environment for many years. I haven’t had the opportunity to experience that in my past positions. I think you hit the key note “engaging” long term employees. This is going to be how good companies hold onto solid talent.

  • Hi Trish,

    It really is a generational thing, I think. Younger people are far less likely to stay with one company for 10+ years than they were in the past. As you say, it used to be seen as an ‘honourable’ decision. But I think nowadays, if an employer looked at your CV and you were thirty five and had only worked in one or two different offices, I’m not sure whether they’d see that as a testament to your commitment or a lack of ambition and the self belief it takes to step up to a new challenge.

    What do you think?

  • @The Graduate-

    I will play devil’s advocate here and say that one huge reason why people generally don’t stay at one place for years and years anymore is that companies are not as loyal to good talent as they used to be. Also, to go on the opposing viewpoint is that people wish to advance careers further in a quicker way. Most people jump jobs to hop up the ladder, not for lateral career movement. The only way to do that is to go elsewhere, in many cases. So it is two-fold. In general, there are fewer and fewer stories of one working themselves from the mail room to the executive washroom during their tenure of employment. Corporations are always looking from the outside for their higher executive positions. I can’t say whether or not it’s a bad thing, as you can find talent from outside who can give a kick in the pants to the company as a whole with an outsider viewpoint.

  • I have had the pleasure of working for one company for 24 years and another for 8 years. I have also had a job for 2 years and a year and a half where those companies hired me and then went out of business when economy went south.

    I know work for a non-profit and it really does not matter if your a large family company , a huge corporation , small operation or a non-profit, it comes down to the HR departments and the managers of those employees to remember that the people that work there are human and need to feel needed and respected. Today we have created an instant society and a throw-a-way society. So the younger generation is following what they see from the companies, why be loyal if all they may end up doing is replacing me of letting me go when things are tough. Do the right thing and not what is right and the employee will stay longer and want to be engaged. I have a degree in HR management and still had issues with companies doing what the “norm” is when business gets tough, make cuts and reduce workforce and when things turn around they spend twice as much “training” new employees! If employees are engaged and feel they are valued they stay and are extremely productive.

    • @Scott- Thanks for commenting. You’re right, teachers definitely could benefit from having their passion and engagement re-ignited once tenured. It’s a hard, hard job.

  • Length of time on the job is not the real issue. We think this is about generations, but I am in my late 50’s and followed the norm for my generation…I had 7 jobs from college to the age of 35. Most of that was simply finding and using more of my skills doing something I liked and was good at.

    How people behave on the job is mostly a function of what the culture expects from them. If they are expected to grow and be increasingly productive, including the chance to move to other jobs within the company, then that is what happens. The challenge is having managers and leaders understand how to leverage people’s strengths and to create an environment where people are motivated.

    All of us need to be clear what is expected, be supported, feel valued, and to feel like we are doing important work. I like the coaching techniques to help regenerate folks, because that is real life. BUT, the temptation is to look at employees who are complacent (long term or shorter term) and blame them for the way they are. They share in the blame, no doubt, but a closer look at the culture will tell you a lot more about the leadership and the root cause of complacency.

    • @Jim- So glad you commented. I am a believer that the employee is ultimately accountable. Sure, the culture is a major factor but as an employee, I can control my attitude and approach to work regardless of the culture. For example, my parents raised me to have a strong work ethic. That means that is the behavior I demonstrate at work, when I volunteer, when I help the online community, etc. We will always have parts of our jobs that are less desirable, but I believe it’s up to each of us to either push past that or find a job we can do that. A leader can provide a nurturing, creative place for employees to work but if that employee is not motivated, game over. IMHO. Thanks again for commenting. I love the discussion.

  • I fully agree with Jim. People will be engaged on the job when their personal values resonate with the culture, system, leadership, goals, standards and shared values of the company. I served in the military for 22 years before retiring to go into corporate HR.

    Considering I am a ENTJ (MBTI), my level of engagement has definately taken a turn for the worse. I was under the impression the business world would be dynamic, no-nonsense, agile, objective, challenging, results driven and competitive environment that would necessitate what Jim Collin refered to a “culture of discipline” (good to great).

    Sometimes, we give to much credit to the “generational” differentiation. Is there a difference in the attitude of soldiers towards their vocation between Boomers and Yer’s. Let’s leave the technology and how it has shaped tactics in the battlefield. Is there such a thing as a “less-engaged”
    soldier who would forsake his job responsibilties.

    One thing that I find makes hulleva difference is the spirit of teamwork that will adress, one way or rather, the weakest link. It’s not the same in the corporate.

    The best strategy to address a “less-engaged” person, long term or otherwise, is direct and candid. Say what on the mind and focus on the solution, moving forward and without hurting the ego.

  • Wow! bang on.
    Institutionalization is a “mind numb’r”
    I’ve seen both ends of this.
    Those people who are committed to their institution and stay awake, work well and are alive.
    Some others just seem to have gone brain dead, while others have become obsessed with the bureaucratic rules of non-engagement.
    As the song says, “What a piece of work is man nda woman.”
    Dr. jim sellner, PhD.,DipC.

  • What about inviting them to mentor others? Maybe the feel passed over or undervalued in the current organization. Recognizing their skills and asking them to be a go to expert is a way to show appreciation. Of course, for best results it should be intended as genuine recognition of expertise, rather than, ‘Please train your replacement so we can finally get rid of you.’

  • Good advice. And I like the idea of capturing the process knowledge in the organization (not just keeping it in people’s heads). I don’t quite understand how that is coaching them though. If I had to try and make that case I would say that in order to explain what you do to someone else you need to become conscious of what you know. Moving to conscious competence from un-conscious competence. But I am not sure how you mean it to be coaching.

Comments are closed.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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