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May 27, 2021

Whenever a company says, “People are our most important asset,” they usually mean that high performers are their most important asset. After all, high performers are the ones who close the deals, invent the products, maintain customer relationships, etc.

Given the importance of great employees, it’s safe to assume that no executive sets out to create a company culture that’s unappealing, let alone damaging, to high performers. And yet, as shocking as this sounds, that’s what happens in far too many organizations.

In a recent Leadership IQ study, we discovered that nearly half of organizations had created a poor experience for their best people. If that wasn’t bad enough, in those companies, low performers were actually happier. So the best people are potential flight risks, while the least effective ones are likely to stay.

By matching an employee’s engagement survey scores with their annual performance appraisal data for 207 organizations, we learned that being a top-rated employee doesn’t equal happiness or fulfillment. In fact, in 42% of the companies we studied, people with the highest performance appraisal scores had lower employee engagement than those with the lowest appraisal scores.

How is it possible that your mostly highly-rated employees could be less engaged than your people with the lowest appraisal scores? Well, think about what life’s like for many high performers.

Imagine that you (the boss) have just been told that you’ve got to make a major presentation in 48 hours. And if you mess it up, your career will suffer. You’re going to need one of your workers to pull an all-nighter and help you create this presentation. Who are you going to ask to suffer with you for the next two days — your best employee or your worst one? 

Of course, you’ll ask your best person.

When this same situation happens again a few weeks later, who will you task with pulling the all-nighter? Once again, you’ll ask your best employee. 

Play this out in your head a few more times and ask yourself, “When stuff hits the fan, or the pressure gets high, who do I ask to work their tails off and make things right?” What you’ll typically find is that every department has one, two, or three people who consistently get tasked with the toughest projects, the tightest deadlines, and the most stressful situations. It’s not because they’re terrible and we want them to suffer; it’s because they’re the best. But in many companies, being a high performer means having the toughest job.

Making matters worse is that while your high performer goes without sleep for 48 hours to create an amazing slide deck for your big presentation, your worst employee had a relaxed dinner at home followed by a full night’s sleep. 

Perhaps you reward your high performers for their extraordinary effort with a little extra recognition or a bigger bonus. But sadly, that doesn’t happen very often (and even when it does, it’s typically inconsequential).

In another study, we found that 96% of employees, managers, and CEOs agree that high performers should receive more rewards and recognition than low performers. But only 22% said their leader always distinguishes between high and low performers, while 45% said their leader never or rarely does so. 

Clearly, lots of companies struggle to differentiate and appropriately reward or recognize their best performers. Maybe this wouldn’t be as problematic if those organizations were instead offering high performers amazing growth and development opportunities. Alas, in another of our studies, we discovered that only 20% of employees say that their leader always takes an active role in helping them grow and develop their full potential. By contrast, 29% of employees say that their leader never or rarely takes an active role in helping them grow.

I didn’t write all of this to scare or depress you; I simply want to make you aware of the risk. Our high performers often work harder, volunteer more, and respond at all hours. That’s great, and it’s part of what makes them high performers. But the downside is that if we consistently work them into the ground, without rest, reward or development, we risk actively disengaging them.

People are not your most important asset — your best people are your most important asset. All I’m asking you to do is look critically at the experience and engagement of those high performers and react accordingly.