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Miscellaneous articles on staff recognition

Avoid punishing top performers for being successful

On the day when Canadian women won Olympic hockey gold in Vancouver, Canwest newspapers reported that International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge had mused about the future of the sport in the Games.

Noting that the sport has been dominated by the U.S. and Canada since it was admitted to the games in 1998, Rogge suggested that unless other countries are able to ice teams that are more competitive, the sport may be dropped from the Games in the future.

“I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement,” Rogge said. “We cannot continue without improvement.”

The reaction was fast and furious. Sports fans and commentators complained about the unfairness of what Rogge was contemplating.

For me, one phrase stood out in the discourse. The Canadian women were being “punished for success.” The reward for consistent success was the possibility of removal from the world stage that only the Olympic Games provide.

Being punished for success is something I write about in my forthcoming book on staff recognition. Everyday, in workplaces everywhere, top performers are receiving negative recognition for their success.

They are being denied promotions and transfers because they do their jobs so well. They may have everything that the organization says new managers should possess, but they are too valuable to be taken from their current positions.

“We could never promote him,” an executive once told me, referring to a top performer. “He does such a good job. Our customers would never forgive us.”

Another reward for those who have a reputation for completing difficult tasks successfully is another tough job.

“Whenever we have a really tough job, you are my go-to guy,” the boss explains before assigning yet another thorny problem that is going to require extra time and effort to resolve. For a while, knowing that the boss is confident in one’s ability to handle the really difficult jobs is good for one’s self-esteem. But the lustre soon begins to fade.

Eventually, top performers tire of receiving only the most challenging assignments, while all around them, others are given easier tasks. They watch co-workers leave at the end of the day while they remain behind to work on their special projects.

Just this once, couldn’t the top performer be given a simple task? Isn’t it about time that her colleagues were asked to devote extra time and effort to completing one of those projects that seem to be reserved for top performers?

While no organization would purposely do anything that would cause its top performers to leave, the practice of always assigning tough tasks to them may actually be having that effect.

When the only recognition top performers receive is more of the same, the biggest loser may be the employer. Denied opportunities for promotion, top performers will begin to look elsewhere for opportunities to advance their careers or achieve a better work-life balance.

For the sake of the female hockey players in Canada and the US, let’s hope that the quality of hockey in countries such as Finland (winners of the bronze medal in 2010), Sweden, Russia, China and others continue to improve.

And in workplaces everywhere—schools, hospitals, offices and retail businesses—let’s hope the managers will stop punishing, albeit unintentionally, top performers for their successes.

How to Avoid Punishing Top Performers for Their Success

  • Make top performers aware of future projects and invite them to choose their next assignments
  • Don’t block promotions that involve transfers to another department because you don’t want to lose a top performer. Your department’s loss may be another department’s gain, but the whole organization will continue to benefit from the top performer’s efforts and you may be perceived within the organization as a developer of top talent.
  • Monitor staff members’ workloads. If you notice that what someone is doing is affecting her work-life balance negatively, discuss it with her.
  • Restrain yourself from always assigning the most difficult tasks to the same few top performers, just because you know they will do it right.
  • When a promotion is not an option, find ways to enrich the staff member’s job without increasing his workload. Provide variety. Offer more autonomy or control over the work. Allow the staff member to make more work-related decisions. Give the staff member responsibility for managing a small budget. Make training opportunities available. Focus on ways for the staff member to grow professionally.

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