Advice & News

March 14, 2023

Are You Asking Too Much of Your High Performers?


Note: This is part two of a two-part series discussing the concept of "performance punishment" that has recently gained popularity. This article provides advice for managers who may be relying too much on their high performers. Read about tips for navigating the issue as an employee here.

Leaders, as your top performers move on to other opportunities, to what do you attribute their success? Effective leaders generally express bittersweet emotions, stating how sorry they are to see them leave but proud and unsurprised that an employee they've been privileged to support is taking the next meaningful, well-deserved step in their career.

Or does their leaving reflect a different reality? While outwardly celebrating their success, is your regret due in part to losing a dependable, "go-to" employee able to accomplish tasks more expediently and effectively than team members who are staying? Are they leaving due to burnout for being an overachiever on whom you've relied too heavily? Do you wonder who you'll "go to" now?

The popular term for this phenomenon is "performance punishment," though the practice of assigning more work to and expecting more from top performers is nothing new. We assign the work because we know they will get the job done. They perceive the additional work as "punishment" when lesser performing employees are not similarly burdened, and their performance deficits are ignored.

The causes of performance punishment are multi-faceted, whether due to a high-pressure work environment, a culture that fails to account for equity and work-life balance, or the anxiety, inexperience, or ignorance of the manager assigning the work. Let's consider different mindsets and strategies for avoiding this practice and supporting top performers.

Understand the realities and impacts. Overburdening high performers impacts the whole workforce. High performers will feel burnout and ultimately leave when they feel unappreciated, unrewarded, and expected to do more than others. Generally effective performers are often ignored and become discouraged when they don't receive the growth and development opportunities that come with being assigned challenging work. They, too, may eventually leave. And the deficits of underperforming employees are not addressed, so either they are not given the chance to improve or remain to languish in the absence of corrective action. Managers must accept their responsibilities to all employees and engage in necessary ongoing connections and supervision to support, develop, and correct their performance as warranted.

Consider how top performers respond when you depend too heavily on them. Being perceived as the "go-to" employee may initially feel good. High achievers like being called upon, completing tasks in a proficient manner, and receiving acknowledgement for their efforts. For a time, they may even be glad to take on additional work as it provides a sense of intrinsic satisfaction and that their contributions matter. There are even neuroscientific explanations for this as it can give us a "status boost" and feed our innate need to feel capable and worthy.

At the same time, we can feel threatened when additional work becomes routine, the good feelings dissipate, and we perceive others being rewarded for doing less. Resentment builds when, for example, we put in long hours and weekends and observe others not sharing the load, taking the weekend off, and enjoying the dinners at home and children's school events we regret missing. As managers, we must recognize our contribution to this response when perceiving top performers' willingness to take on tasks without understanding the downside and taking their acceptance for granted.

Examine your biases that lead you to rely on top performers. We may have natural biases influencing our selection of high achievers. We may perceive their work style as similar to our own. We may feel they are more experienced with the work involved and better able to complete tasks in an expedient manner. We may trust in only them to complete the work, or we may simply feel they are more accessible and approachable to receive such assignments without the need for long explanations. A bias for someone, of course, is often a bias against someone else, so a lack of self-awareness in how and why you favor some and not others can translate into how assignments are doled out and how some employees are supported (or burdened) and others are not.

Learn to delegate appropriately. It is common for inexperienced and immature managers to fail to delegate or to delegate equitably. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of trust in others to do the work correctly, the time it takes to delegate and explain assignments, and a feeling that others won't produce a quality product or provide quality service. Typically, these reasons relate to why managers choose to take on the work themselves, but the same rationale applies to why they select some for certain assignments and not others.

Delegation involves more than simply handing over work. Managers must take a big-picture approach to the work to be done. They must assess the capabilities, strengths, and needs for improvement for all team members. They must seek to balance the workload so that all team members receive both necessary and often mundane assignments and other more interesting and challenging assignments that will stretch and develop them. In many instances, they must also spend time initially to explain new assignments, coach employees as they proceed, and monitor progress along the way. Higher achieving performers may receive higher stakes assignments in this framework, but in balance with the total work to be done across the team. Effective delegation can go a long way in alleviating concerns that they are being singled out.

Develop long-term practices to avoid performance punishment. As leaders, consider what you can do to create awareness of the impacts of performance punishment and to influence change. Perhaps the work culture doesn't support positive work-life balance to ensure an effective balance of contribution among employees and across teams, use of earned time off, and boundaries on work hours so that employees enjoy their home life and managers don't interfere with late-night calls and similar intrusions. Perhaps the organization needs to improve its recruitment and retention efforts to ensure they are hiring effective performers (if not all top performers) and creating structures for developing them so that all employees understand expectations and can also expect to receive rewards and opportunities for good work. What are the trends in job satisfaction and turnover among high achievers that you see? How can you translate these concerns to advocate for a different approach within your organization?

Communicate. If you wonder whether your actions in assigning work and creating expectations for high achievers have the effect of punishing them, however unintended, you can bet this is on their minds as well. They are likely already considering how best to navigate their current situation without burning bridges while looking for their next opportunity elsewhere. So why not talk about it? Open conversation about the realities of the workload, your legitimate need from time to time to assign additional work, and your desire to support them and address their concerns can make a big difference in their choices to stay or go.

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