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high performers… saints or sinners?

You may have a high performer in your team.  In which case, you probably consider yourself to be very lucky.  But are you?  Whilst a high performer clearly provides benefits, they can also produce liabilities.  Here’s the case for and against…

key take-aways:

  1. high performers can add real value – or difficulties
  2. they are often highly motivated, talented, and hard working
  3. they improve the customer offer and experience
  4. their higher performance can strain resources and leave less interesting work unfilled
  5. they can alienate those who feel unfairly compared and pressured to do the same
  6. the high performers may be prone to burn out, or leave if unrewarded

High Performers as Saints

The first and most obvious benefit is that they add value to the bottom line.  They tend to be more productive, and seem willing to go the extra mile, and even work longer hours.  They do this for a number of reasons:

  • they love the job, and are happy to work as long as it takes on something they really enjoy
  • they are, or are close to being, perfectionists. They have higher standards than many, and are committed to working to those standards.  For such employees, ‘good enough’ is never ‘good enough’.  And though they may often feel dissatisfied with their work, since it is never ‘perfect’, it is still better than that produced by most other staff
  • they are ambitious, and believe that in order to achieve progress, it pays to work above and beyond, show their worth, and be noticed
  • they are simply talented. They are the high performance outliers in any bell curve distribution of competence and ability.  They can’t help themselves – they are just ‘that good’

The positive consequences of all the above are clear.

The individual usually feels happy and motivated, and has a high sense of achievement.  They also can see the fruits of their labour being recognised and valued – either informally through praise and reputation, or more formally through promotion or financial reward.

The organisation gets higher quality work than normal.  If the organisation wants to achieve progress and continuous improvement, then such staff are in the vanguard of this, leading the growth in excellence required, and the potential competitive advantage this might bring.

The customer benefits too.  Every customer loves service delivery which exceeds expectations, which delights the customer – especially if such added value comes at no extra expense.  So high performing individuals create a new bar of service expectations, which once established as the new norm, increase customer loyalty and again adds value to the bottom line.

So – high performing staff: what’s not to like?…

High Performers as Sinners

Not everything in the high performance garden is rosy, for the following reasons.

Firstly, for ‘high performance’, read ‘over performance’. Using this perspective, the high performer, in exceeding existing standards, may take more time than is normally allowed for the existing standard to be achieved.  And if this is done without the manager’s approval, in effect this has ‘stolen’ that extra time that might have been expected to be used somewhere else.

In my early years as a lecturer, I was scheduled to see 3 personal tutees for an hour each, one after the other.  The first student I saw had a number of problems affecting them, and we worked hard to resolve them – successfully.  So at the end of the session I and they felt really happy and satisfied.  The problem was – it had taken 3 hours to resolve – meaning I had missed my appointment with the other two students, who were, of course, not happy.

This is a good example of opportunity cost, which simply means that the time it takes to do task A cannot also be allocated to task B (or C, and so on).  So my high performance with student A came at the opportunity cost of seeing the other two students: the two hours spent with A could not also be spent with B and C.

Secondly, high performers often set and work to higher standards than those normally delivered. This can be disruptive in a team setting.  For example, if everyone’s contract requires them to produce 40 widgets per hour, but person A produces 60 widgets per hour, then that is a new expectation of performance that management may now expect everyone in the team to produce.  If the pressure is on to produce the new standard of 60 widgets, team members may feel angry about an unofficial  ‘resetting’ of contract standards, and may well resent the ‘high performer’ responsible.

Thirdly, the high performer may well have set new, higher expectations from the customer. So the customer expects those new standard to be the new norm – which in turn means the organization (and the rest of the team) have to deliver those new standards, or risk losing the customer.  Such unofficial raising of the bar is a good example of ‘short term gain, long term pain’: in the short term, it has delighted the customer; in the longer term, it has created pressure to continue to deliver to those new expectations – pressure which may be financially unsustainable and demoralising for staff.  And if the service has over delivered in the short term, its longer term reputation with the customer might be  that it over-promises but under-delivers…

In my early years as a lecturer, I was scheduled to see 3 personal tutees for an hour each, one after the other.  The first student I saw had a number of problems affecting them, and we worked hard to resolve them – successfully.  So at the end of the session I and they felt really happy and satisfied.  The problem was – it had taken 3 hours to resolve – meaning I had missed my appointment with the other two students, who were, of course, not happy.

Finally, of course, the high performer might continue to perform at an unsustainably high level, in personal terms. Initially the individual might enjoy the challenge, stretch and reputation high performance provides, but over time and especially if unmanaged, it might convert into burn out…


So – what to do?

The answer is to find the appropriate balance between the benefits and costs of having a high performer.  This checklist might help.

  1. Ensure all over-performance is notified and approved before it is delivered. So explain to all staff that all contrubutions to improved excellence are valued and welcome, but such improvements have to be approved and costed before they go live
  2. Make sure that all suggestions that would lead to quality improvements are recognised and valued – whether implemented or not
  3. If the suggested improvements are not implemented, explain why
  4. If you have any high and talented performers explain to them the potential costs of delivering improvements without approval

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Live Poll - Mitsubishi - 06/21 - Lift Off

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We know it’s a faff
And a bit of a pain;
But it really helps us
Stay on top of our game…

We know it’s a faff
And a bit of a pain;
But it really helps us
Stay on top of our game…