You know what happens when you take on that extra assignment to help the team, right? You get more work.

We all know what it’s like. You do a great job, bring a big project in under budget, deliver on a key sale, or make a stellar presentation to the board while the boss is out of town. When you take on that extra assignment to help the team, you get more. More work.

I first heard the term when teaching a class called Managing for Performance. Describing the process of setting expectations, assigning work, clarifying expectations, giving feedback, etc., I asked the participants what we should do for people when they perform well. (On my nice process chart it was, ‘Provide recognition’). Someone offered, “Punishment for performance.” “What?,” I asked. “When someone performs well, we just give them more work.”

Ouch…and true. Think about it. When our high performers shine and get the job done so well, we ‘reward’ them with more work. It’s not the poor performers or the mediocre folks who get asked to do more. They’re barely managing as it is. As the saying goes, when you want something done, give it to a busy person.

When high performers rise to the occasion and get the job done so well, we ‘reward’ them with more work. It’s not the poor performers or the mediocre folks who get asked to do more. They’re barely managing as it is

Is it fair? No. Is it the reality? More often than not, yes.

High performers themselves are partly to blame. True to their name, high performers will typically step up and work long hours on the sales presentation and oversee that production run for a coworker on leave. They’ll do whatever you ask them to. Maybe it’s their nature – I think that’s a big part of it – or maybe they want the recognition or opportunity.

The fact is it happens, and it sets your high performers up for burnout – or worse, leaving your company. How do you know if you are guilty of delivering ‘punishment for performance’?

  • You don’t think twice about asking your top folks to take on extra work – regularly.
  • Your high performers wear a chronically fatigued look. And the coffee is set on intravenous drip (does Keurig have a cup for that yet?).
  • You send, and get emails from your high potentials in the wee hours of the night and morning. About work.
  • They have way too many vacation hours – unused.

So what should you do? If the above resembles your management style, here are a few alternatives to ‘punishment for performance.

  • Stop piling on the projects. Your high performer may not feel comfortable telling you it’s too much. She’s thinking (subconsciously, of course), “Hey, I’m a high performer. I can handle it.” Or “He needs my help. I can’t turn him down.’
  • Have a talk with them. A heart-to-heart. Find out how they are ‘really’ doing. Ask (sincerely) if the workload is too much. Are they getting enough time at home? Where do they want to be in five years? Do they have the professional development they want or need? It’s a lot of questions, but it’s stuff you really should know about your best employees.
  • Let them know you consider them ‘high potential’ and want to help them advance with your company. Come up with a plan together.
  • Invest in their professional development. No one minds working hard if they know they are appreciated and valued. Nothing says ‘you’re important’ like the opportunity to learn and grow in knowledge and skills.

You may be thinking, “Isn’t it expensive to send my people to a professional development program?” Perhaps, but it will cost much more to lose your high performers to burnout or the competition.

Professional development is an investment that pays you a dividend. When your best and brightest receive professional development, they are more loyal to your company. As their skills and interpersonal abilities grow, they bring that expertise to your company and grow with you. It’s a win-win. Everyone benefits when no one gets ‘punishment for performance.’

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