How Not to Manage a High Performer

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Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Note: I originally posted this piece at LinkedIn.

I’ve observed high performers drowning within their own work environments.

Their days are consumed with tasks that drag them far from where they would bring the most value. They are overworked — but vastly underutilized. They can feel stuck and frustrated. They often spend their days putting out their colleagues’ “fires” and must literally hide to secure uninterrupted periods of focused work.

In some ways, they are punished for being well-versed in “how things get done”.

This is wrong on so many levels.

If these practices are commonly occurring within your organization, you should proceed with caution. At the very least, you are tempting the “workplace fates” — and the fates may not be kind.

Research has indicated that your least engaged employees,  may actually be your high performers. This flies in the face of conventional lore and contiguously sets up a dangerous, high risk scenario. The practice of your high performers picking up the slack for under-performers for example, can drone on for a time. However, this will likely create a whole new set of problems. At some point, the “gig” is up. You’ll look up one morning to find your high performer, standing in front of your desk, giving notice.

“Why”, you ask in complete and utter shock.

The most frustrating element in this dynamic? We can do something to prevent their exit. You’ll be left at a loss — but they may feel as if they have narrowly escaped a hostile environment.

Here are a few things to avoid where your top performers are concerned:

  • Punish them for competence. If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it one thousand times. Often competent, established employees become responsible for each and every problem employee or departmental snafu. In essence, they have two sets of challenges — those of the entire group — and their own.
  • Fail to challenge them. When things are the busiest and work simply needs to get out the door, you rely on your top performers to keep things flowing. However, this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like the opportunity to tackle a “stretch assignment” that utilizes their skills and strengths, when things calm down.
  • Fail to consult them when key changes are considered. We don’t always need a hired consultant to guide decisions affecting the business. Consult your established staff. Tapping their knowledge base helps us see the bigger picture for what it really is.
  • Fail to share what they know. It is critical to share their depth of experience with others (not just those in trouble). Set up a master series — and let your high performers lead the way for your less established employees.

Have you had this experience?
How do you recognize your committed, high performers? Share your strategies.

Ready to work with Dr. Gottschalk?  Schedule s strategy session here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including the Harvard Business Review, Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

5 thoughts on “How Not to Manage a High Performer

  1. Another great article, my own approach was to set up my own business – so that I could focus on doing and being rewarded for what I do best, and avoid doing the work that ‘had to be done by somebody’. There is also a very unspoken tendency to put people into the harness as part of a team- or in the worst cases into a box called this is how we do it here. I find now when I join teams as a consultant, they enjoy a fresh approach and energy.

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  2. One organisation I worked for had a system where particularly talented technical staff could become Fellows and Senior Fellows and they had funding for three or five years to spend on whatever interested them. This funding wasn’t massive (~£10k per year) but was in addition to their salary and they could spend it as they thought fit.

    While this worked well for those exceptionally talented individuals, there were a number of people just below that level whose promotion prospects were limited unless they took on non-technical roles such as project management and line management.

    I think that we need to recognise that high performers are on a spectrum and wherever you draw the line, there will be some people on the wrong side of it.

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  3. Good to hear that you not only recognized the issue — you decided to act. We sometimes forget that high performers have development needs as well. High performers do leave, because they simply cannot do their own work or forge their own path.

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  4. Very true and have been at the receiving end of this many times. I think if leaders learn to view their high performers from this perspective, that by itself will trigger a lot of changes on how they manage them. Agree on consulting with them and giving them stretch assignments. It is also important to ask them what their interest is and ensure that they are rewarded with work they like.
    When I ran my start up, when we noticed this trend of high performers picking up the slack of others, we would physically move them to a different location to give them the much needed space to focus on their special projects.

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