I recently read an article detailing the writer’s list of top reasons why high-performers leave your company. There were admittedly some good reasons – lack of challenging work, cloudy career path, poor/no relationship with a supervisor – that are hard to argue with, but there was one glaring omission from the list that needs to be addressed:

High-performers quit because they’re repeatedly punished for being high-performers.

How do we punish high-performers? Here are three ways we do it every day.

  • You punish high-performers by assigning them the work of poor-performers instead of holding poor-performers accountable for their own work.

I’ve read countless business articles suggesting that one of the primary reasons high-performers quit in frustration is the excessive amount of work piled onto them by their managers, but this is not entirely true. High- performers aren’t nearly as frustrated by the amount of work assigned as they are about why it’s being assigned to them or, perhaps more accurately, whose work is being assigned to them.

High-performers fully expect to be challenged by the scope and complexity of the work they’re given, and they routinely produce more and better work than average employees. If a high-performer isn’t challenged by her workload, she’ll become bored and begin to look elsewhere to be challenged.

What makes high-performers feel punished isn’t the amount of work on their plate, it’s the work assigned to them that actually belongs to someone else who can’t be counted on to deliver. Whether it’s one-time rework required to fix someone else’s mistakes or a more permanent shifting of assignments from habitually low-performers to trusted high-performers, leaders punish high-performers by asking them to cover for ineffective teammates and the leader’s inability to hold poor-performers accountable for poor results.

Each time you ask a high-performer to do someone else’s work because you can count on them to do it right, you reinforce an organizational lack of accountability that drives high-performers out the door.

  • You punish high-performers by expecting less from other members of the team.

It’s almost an unwritten rule that you can hold high-performers to higher expectations than the rest of your team. After all, you’ve heard “From whom much is given, much is expected”, and this isn’t entirely untrue. We expect high-performers to get the job done no matter what, and we’re surprised when they don’t. We expect them to respond at all hours of the day, night, and weekend. We give them tighter deadlines and shorter turnarounds because we know we can count on them. We’re surprised by their mistakes and miscalculations.

Ironically, high expectations aren’t what frustrates high-performers into leaving your company. In fact, high-performers often don’t need you to expect more from them; they’re usually holding themselves to higher standards.

What frustrates high-performers into quitting is when the rest of the team is managed by this corollary: “From whom little is given, little is expected”. When high-performers have high expectations and their teammates have normal expectations, the resultant expectations-gap is a badge of honor for high-performers; but when high-performers have high expectations and their teammates underperform to low- or no expectations, the high-performer feels punished and alone to cover for everyone else.

  • You punish high-performers by isolating them from the team.

Do you remember in grammar school how we dealt with the teacher’s pet? The teacher’s most liked, favored or appreciated student was often the object of jeers, taunts, name-calling, and isolation from jealous students.

Sadly, this behavior doesn’t stop just because people age and the venue changes from classroom to office. When the boss favors high-performers like a teacher’s pet, the high-performer is placed in an unwinnable position with their peers. You can disagree with this all you want, but it’s far more prevalent than you may care to admit. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve listened to jealous employees complain about the person in the organization who gets away with murder because the boss favors him or her. In fact, the jeers, taunts and name-calling are uglier and more passive-aggressive than they ever were on the playground.

You can avoid this for your high-performers by maintaining the healthy boundaries between you and them. Don’t allow yourself to confide in your high-performers about the issues, shortcomings or performance problems of their peers; or worse, your peers! Doing so and then asking them to keep secrets they shouldn’t have elevates and isolates them from others.

Similarly, always choosing high-performers to lead team projects and initiatives or giving them opportunities that separate them from the team contributes to the high-performer’s isolation. Instead, look for and create opportunities for collaboration rather than competition. Set your high-performers up for success by sharing the wealth of recognition, opportunity, praise, and feedback so no one will know who your favorites are.

What do you think? Are there other ways you’ve seen or experienced punishment as a high-performer? Email me at patrick@newlegendsnow.com with your thoughts. I’d love to hear them!