By Brian Kreissl
Several recent articles (including this blog post in the Harvard Business Review) cite research showing top performers may not be the most engaged employees and, conversely, that low performers are frequently an organization’s most highly engaged employees.
While this appears to contradict previous research and prevailing wisdom about employee engagement, it actually makes perfect sense and doesn’t necessarily mean employers need to throw away everything they know about employee engagement.
However, it does mean employers need to ensure their top performers are highly engaged and remain that way.
The research, completed by consulting firm Leadership IQ, shows top performers are frequently the most disengaged employees in an organization. That is due to a number of factors including the fact those people often have higher workloads and greater expectations placed on them.
Top performers frequently carry the load for other less effective individuals. That’s because high performers can be several times as efficient as mediocre employees.
As the saying goes, if you want a task completed, give it to your busiest person. While that’s not exactly a recipe for fairness, it is understandable how many managers assign work to their go-to person knowing it will get done.
The problem is the extra responsibility and workload could be burning them out. High performers resent doing more than their fair share and can become disgruntled and less enthusiastic about the organization.
They often perceive the workplace to be less fair than other employees, and they can end up being cynical about the organization's espoused commitment to work-life balance or what they see as empty slogans like “our people are our greatest assets.”
When this happens, the organization is in grave danger of losing its top talent to the competition — especially since such individuals are highly marketable elsewhere.
Conversely, low performers are often blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings. Studies show that people who perform tasks poorly often believe they’ve done well, while people who perform very well can be hard on themselves and often see even more room for improvement.
There are at least two reasons for that. First of all, high performers tend to be perfectionists. Secondly, it’s a truism that the more you know about something the greater your understanding of the gaps in your knowledge.
All of these factors can therefore cause poor performers to feel more affinity with the organization, especially if no one is holding those people accountable. In many ways, a “country club” atmosphere can lead to a greater deal of organizational and job satisfaction among people who have very few expectations placed on them. Yet it doesn't have to be that way.
Dealing with low performers
Something needs to be done with an organization’s low performers. For one thing, it’s particularly important for managers to set expectations with respect to performance. It is also important to ensure low performers know their performance isn’t up to expectations.
And while I’m not much of a fan of “rank and yank” methodologies that advocate terminating the bottom five or 10 per cent of an organization’s workforce, companies sometimes have no choice but to terminate underperforming employees — especially after they’ve had a chance to improve and haven’t. Nevertheless, it’s also possible someone who isn’t a fit for her particular role could successfully be redeployed elsewhere within the organization.
Keeping high performers engaged
While it’s important to do something with low performers, the most important task is ensuring top talent (also called “A” players) remain engaged.
Top performers need to be challenged. But managers need to ensure these employees continue to do their best work and they don’t do too much and burn themselves out.
While “A” players typically put forward a great deal of discretionary effort, there needs to be something in it for them. Therefore, rewards and recognition are important (but not just money, which isn’t the motivator many people assume it is).
Yet, if compensation and benefits aren’t internally equitable and externally competitive, that can lead to dissatisfaction and turnover — especially among top performers who are well aware of their value in the external marketplace.
Awards of excellence, plaques, gifts, celebrations and extra perks such as an additional day off can help show top performers their efforts are appreciated. Even an email message from an executive or recognition from a supervisor for a job well done can help motivate and engage such employees.
Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at email@example.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.