Are You Guilty of Performance Punishment?
Performance punishment is embedded into many workplace cultures.
Posted February 15, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- If you’re rewarding the top performers on your team with more work and responsibility, you may be driving them right out the door.
- The harsh reality is that chronic low performance means inevitable failure.
- Routinely recruiting high performers to pick up the slack can be a red flag of chronic under-management.
If you’re rewarding the top performers on your team with more work and responsibility, you may be driving them right out the door.
This is what’s known as “performance punishment,” and it can seem counterintuitive at first: Shouldn’t the highest-performing people be the ones given more opportunities? But in a world where most people are already stretched too thin, those opportunities become burdens. And it’s only a matter of time before resentment builds to a breaking point.
The reality is that most of the additional responsibilities heaped onto the best employees are things that won’t meaningfully advance their careers. These are usually recurring tasks that someone else has failed to do well or do on time and are therefore falling into the laps of people who have demonstrated their ability to pull through at the last minute. They may be recognized for saving the day once or twice until it becomes the norm, at which point they’re now effectively doing someone else’s work for no greater reward or recognition.
Performance punishment is embedded into many workplace cultures, and it can be difficult for individual managers to break the mold. But unless you want to be left with a team of underdeveloped, low performers, you’d be wise to consider the following mindset shifts.
1. Your under-performers will never improve unless you give them chances to.
When low performers are saved by the efforts of their overcommitted peers, both parties suffer: High performers experience resentment and burnout, while low performers continue to meet the same low standards that have been established for them. Neither person in this scenario is learning, improving, or advancing their career.
The harsh reality here is that chronic low performance means inevitable failure. Projects are delayed, colleagues are disappointed, and deals may fall through. Allowing your low performers to dodge the consequences of their low performance isn’t getting anyone anywhere.
It’s certainly more difficult and time-consuming, but unless you put people in the position to learn and rise to the occasion—especially when it’s a routine part of their job—they will never be able to demonstrate their ability to do better.
2. High performers will never have time for real growth opportunities if they’re endlessly bombarded by urgent requests.
Even if your high performers are happy to accept the additional work thrown their way, this is stunting the development of your team on both ends of the performance spectrum. These arrangements may work for a while, even long-term, but inevitably there will come a time when you have a task only that high performer is capable of completing. If their time is already monopolized by lesser tasks, and there’s no one else to step up, your only options are to either overcommit yourself or hire someone new.
3. Investing time in developing your low performers is part of your responsibility as a manager.
All managers, at one time or another, are guilty of thinking, “I shouldn’t have to tell my people how to do their jobs; that’s why we hired them!” In an ideal world, this would be the case. But people aren’t perfect, and if someone isn’t meeting expectations, the responsibility is on you—their manager—to give them the information, resources, and other support they need to get things done.
4. Constant firefighting is a sign of chronic under-management.
Routinely recruiting high performers to pick up the slack can be a huge red flag of chronic under-management. If performance problems are lurking below the radar until it’s too late, you are likely not paying enough attention to your direct reports day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month. Again, it’s the manager’s responsibility to ensure that expectations are being met, not just at the end of a task or project but at every step of the way.
If that sounds too much like micromanagement, consider that your current way of doing things clearly isn’t working, either. There are a lot of points between under-management and micromanagement, and if the pendulum is swung too far in one direction, it’s unlikely that you will overcorrect.