Most managers don’t realize their organization is in decline until results hit the skids. Then they react, or overreact, as they scramble to get things on track. This is both foolish and unnecessary. There are actually four stages of decline, and if you recognize them and make adjustments, you can oftentimes right your course without having to suffer a visible decline in results at all. To better understand how the four stages of decline work, and how recognizing them faster can avoid costly production dips and help you continue to grow, first consider these four points on decline to set the stage:
- Decline means “to slope downward.” It’s not a plunge, but a slow, rolling descent. Just as you don’t become great in one fell swoop, neither do you hit bottom in one fell swoop. The problem is that decline is subtle, and the slope downward is so gradual you hardly notice it until it’s too late.
- Good news: There is a grace period between the time you get off track and when the decline actually shows up. For instance, if you don’t hold someone accountable today, the bottom won’t fall out tomorrow; if you skip a training meeting this week, you’re not likely to hit bottom next week. However, if you continue to fail in the disciplines of accountability and people development, the decline will eventually show up. What’s important is to catch yourself when you’re off track while you’re still in the grace period so you can turn things around and avoid a decline in results.
- You are either growing or in decline; there is no middle ground or “holding your own.” This is because each day you’re planting seeds, and they will eventually determine the quality of your harvest. Just because the growth or decline hasn’t show up yet, doesn’t change the fact that this is happening. You can have a record month and simultaneously plant the seeds for future decline if key disciplines get lost in the busyness of the month.
- When you find yourself in decline, it’s not because of something you did last night. Rather, it’s the result of a series of failed disciplines and poor decisions, sown over time that have finally caught up with you. Failure is not an accident; you either set yourself up for it or you don’t.
With this perspective in mind, let’s get to the four stages of decline. Creating greater awareness of the stages is a skill that separates highly effective leaders from wannabes. In fact, the biggest vulnerability any of us face is the one we’re unaware of; we weren’t prepared and never saw it coming. Thus, understanding the following four stages of decline, and taking fast corrective action when you find yourself in one, is a skill that makes you far more valuable as a leader.
The Four Stages of Decline
Success breeds complacency.
It’s ironic that success is the first stage of decline, but success commonly triggers complacency in many endeavors. Complacency means calmly content and smugly self-satisfied, and that’s precisely what can happen to leaders when they’re at the top of their game or setting new records. Without question, as prosperity rises, urgency falls in far too many dealerships. Many leaders can’t survive success because it makes them complacent, cocky and unteachable. Thus, even though they may work sixty hours per week, they’re so calmly content with their results they’ve let up on accountability, recruiting, training, coaching and more. These failed disciplines and poor decisions plant seeds that weaken the culture and threaten future results.
2. Complacency breeds lost focus.
Focus is defined as the ability to concentrate. It’s unfeasible to think you can be simultaneously complacent—calmly content—and focused like a laser on what matters most each day. Thus, complacency opens the door to lost focus, causing leaders to spend their days a mile wide and an inch deep; majoring in minor things, putting second things first, and largely disengaging from the essential as they’re chased by the trivial. You can’t play to win when you’ve lost focus; instead you’re just trying to stay afloat, struggling not to lose ground. As stressful and exhausting as stage two is, it gets even worse at stage three.
3. Lost focus breeds inconsistency.
At stage three you’re in real trouble and headed for decline fast. Inconsistency is the natural result of lost focus; there is no way you can remain consistent in vital daily disciplines when you’ve lost your ability to concentrate on what they are. Thus you become inconsistent in the very activities that made you successful in the first place; things like planning, recruiting, training, personal growth, conducting one-on-one coaching sessions, holding vital meetings and more. If you’ve become inconsistent in an area like one of these, and if you’re fortunate, you may still be in the grace period with declining numbers not showing up yet. But they will; you’re not the exception. Thus, it’s time to get back on track before you fall to stage four.
4. Inconsistency precedes decline.
As you may have guessed, inconsistency is the last stop on the way to decline. In fact, this is a principle that applies to many areas of your life:
Inconsistency in financial discipline eventually leads to a financial decline.
Inconsistency in health disciplines eventually brings a decline in health.
Inconsistency in spiritual disciplines will bring a decline in spiritual health.
Inconsistency in maintaining relationships creates relationships in decline.
It may be helpful at this time to conduct a simple inconsistency audit to honestly evaluate where you and your team have become inconsistent. This isn’t about fault, it’s about fixing it and getting back on track. You do, however, have the option of remaining complacent, doing nothing, staying off track and allowing the inconsistency to eventually catch up with you and destroy results. I’ve done my part to caution you. The ball is now in your court. You can claim to be surprised by decline once; after that, you’re unprepared.