How We Sabotage Our Top Performers

I have worked with many organizations in a variety of industries over the last few years and I always carve out time to really assess the reality of the culture when I am involved in a project. One of my favorite things to do is to take the top performer in the company and the bottom performer in the company, separately, out to lunch to get their perspective of the workplace culture.

It’s always interesting – and almost without exception – that the high-performer feels a greater sense of accountability and expectation placed on them from their leadership team than the worst performer. They also feel less confident about their career stability and trajectory – in their current company – than their sub-par counterparts. I, essentially, guide our lunch dialogs in the same fashion and ask similar questions to solicit open and authentic conversation so I can work through the framework of the exchange and find the variables and any similar threads. Usually, there is quite a lot to unpack after these interactions.

It is, also, almost without exception that the average organization loses their most productive people at a significantly faster pace to their most terrible people . The fact is that productive people can easily find [or feel] that they aren’t welcome in their current role, because their elevated productivity and drive upsets the bromidic energy of the rest of the team. A weak or blurry culture allows for that and leaves great people feeling underappreciated and overworked. We, all of us, deserve to work for a person [or persons] who recognizes our talent and show they are actively appreciative through their behavior and support. Leaders need to be grateful for EVERYTHING about their top performers…their brains, their hearts, their talents, their results, their passion, their commitment, their uniqueness…

None of us want to think that we aren’t adequately appreciating and valuing our most productive team member(s). But few of us actually do it well. Then we pour salt on the wound by treating the poorest of performers better [because we aren’t holding them accountable for their terrible productivity and lack of results]. Here are some of the most common issues that inspire your top performers to only seek recognition and reward elsewhere:

  • As they complete their projects quickly – they’re given more work: It happens consistently and there are a lot of managers who do it [and even some who are grasping their pearls as they read this, saying “I would never do that!“] to their best people. All this does is create an incentive for your most valuable people to slow down and/or not complete their work flawlessly. Inevitably, their output and/or their quality fades when they realize they’re doing this with no benefit to them. Strangely enough their “leader” has no problem approaching their top performers and telling them they aren’t delivering at the level they should be – all while letting the worst people [making the same amount of money] continue to be a financial and cultural drain on the organization.
  • When someone is hyper-competent – they earn the messiest, ugliest, most difficult issues to solve under the guise of a “reward”: The moment a great person resolves a difficult issue, they earn an even messier one to fix. Yes, it can be great to assign a challenge to intellectually stimulate our best and brightest, but it can be miserable for the assignee to claw through operational and bureaucratic muck where most of the grossest problems are positioned, with no recognition or reward at the end of the notorious and proverbial tunnel.
  • Great employees often share the fabulous competencies of creativity and curiosity: They can usually solve the unsolvable and make lemonade out of a gigantic mountain of corporate lemons. Because of that, their colleagues look to them to support them when they get stuck. So, now they are not only doing their work but supporting their co-workers professional hiccups.
  • People want to be rewarded for their hard work and excellent results by being given more money, a promotion, or both: But, all too often, fantastic people are blocked in their efforts to get to the next level in their career. Usually because of an ineffective or clueless manager [or agglomeration of clueless managers] who knows losing this person would mean more work for them and they may not shine as brightly if they need to replace their best person/people.
  • Ultra-effective people are really great at finding better, smarter, faster ways to get their work done: And then comes along the command-and-control throwback “manager” [there are still a lot of these in most workplaces] who gasps in horror at learning of a new and better way of working and says something stupid like, “But that’s not how WE do it here“. For those of you that don’t believe this unevolved, morale-killing-monster still exists – I heard that sentence last week at a Fortune 500 company. Within 60 minutes, the person who was the recipient of this insane statement had contacted two recruiters and was actively looking for a new job [and I don’t blame them one bit].

I consult with companies all the time that do these things listed and then lament that they keep losing their most productive people and blaming it on everything but themselves when they ARE absolutely, undeniably the problem. If we expect to keep our top people engaged and invested in delivering excellence we need to make sure that we are rewarding them appropriately and fairly to keep them motivated, happy, innovative, and esteemed.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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