Is there a top performer curse now?

Top performer

Before I get going on this top performer curse idea, let me hit you with a pull quote. It’s from an article called “Help Your Team Achieve Work-Life Balance, Even When You Can’t.” (Noble goal.) Here’s the quote:

Redistribute work more evenly. Research by a team from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado in 2015 found that managers underestimate how much time it takes to get something done and assign more work to those who are seen as more competent and responsible. So the only reward for doing good work is the addition of more work. High-performers reported feeling “burdened” and were unhappy about others’ over-reliance on them. Reassigning work to others on the team can help prevent burnout and turnover. It also provides much-needed learning opportunities for others on the team.

Get a nice laugh out of that?

The top performer money quote

That would be “The only reward for doing good work is the addition of more work.” Ha. Sigh.

Here’s one of the essential problems with work overall

We tend to place people in too-easily-determined boxes. For example, he/she may be a “bad employee.” Reality: there is no such thing as a bad employee. I’ve worked with people at two different jobs. They sucked at one, excelled at another. Why? Likely their manager and/or their connection to the work. If your manager is terrible and the work bores you, you probably won’t excel in that role. This shouldn’t be brain science, but often is to guys who run companies.

There are other designations you can receive in your office, including “the emotional one” or “the attention to detail one” or “the superstar one.” In reality, most of this is largely bullshit. Human beings are human beings. They respond to the conditions and context around them. It’s that simple.  We over-complicate so much of the people side of work and yet, at the same time, manage to completely simplify who Jim is down to “the basket case bad employee.” Really odd to live through for 40+ years in the middle of your life.

OK, so back to the top performer curse

Here’s the reason the top performer is getting slammed with so much more work: shitty management. That’s the reason, plain and simple. Most companies are big “Temple of Busy” joints. Everything is urgent, piling up, a priority, and no one can be bothered to say anything aside from how buried they are. Again, most of this is bullshit too and half the people saying that spend 3/4 of the day on Facebook, but let’s gloss that over for the short-term.

In such an environment, managers only really care about one thing: shit getting done, or more specifically, shit getting off their plate — or, even more specifically, their own boss not shitting on them about some shit on someone’s plate. Bottom line: get stuff done. That’s what matters. Execution. This is why “critical thinking” doesn’t exist in most companies. Who has time to think? Gotta execute.

So if Mr. Ass Clown Andy The Middle Manager sees Terrific Tom hitting KPIs like an Army sniper, Andy’s gonna give Tom more and more work. Tom has a newborn? Who gives a fuck? Andy needs those targets hit, so that Andy’s boss can praise Andy.

That’s the top performer curse, in a nutshell.

Can we solve this?

Sure. We need better managers. And we also need to see work-life balance as a real strategic concept, not lip service buzzword hell. This will all take a while in most currently-structured orgs, but we’ll be able to get there eventually.

The real deal is this: on a given team of 10 for any project, probably 2-3 do most of the work, 2-3 do nothing, and the rest update spreadsheets and other middling crap all day. We’ve all been on these teams. A bad manager looks at the 2-3 doing all the heavy lifting and throws more crap at them. A good manager, by contrast, figures out what’s up with the 2-3 doing nothing, tracks the value-add activities of the middling spreadsheet updaters, and finds a way to relieve the 2-3 doing all the work of some burden.

In short: a bad manager reacts to his needs by assigning work to the top performer. A good manager responds to the situation by contextually getting more information about it and making decisions off that.

In that same article I linked above (at the top), HR leaders say that 50% of their turnover year-to-year is associated with burnout. No shit. You don’t think Mr. Top Performer is getting burned out? Of course he is. And when you lose a top performer, that’s a bigger hit than losing Middling Marty over here. So think on this stuff. Think about how you assign work and put people in teams. It does matter.

Anything else you’ve seen on how companies approach the top performer?

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. You think a lot of the issues we have with management now are the aftermath of some sort of post-recession tendency towards extreme risk aversion in companies? As in, we hired a bunch of loss-averse people who can’t or won’t make tough decisions, so they hire a lot of sycophants to pass their work off to, encourage analysis paralysis, and reduce organizations’ ability to efficiently create value?

    I’m half awake as I’m writing this, but that thought struck me as I was reading this.

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