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Top Performer Bias: How to Lose Your Best Employees (and 4 Ways to Keep Them)

Top Performer Bias: How to Lose Your Best Employees (and 4 Ways to Keep Them)

When it comes to retaining high-level performers — those who go above and beyond, believe in your mission, and set a positive tone for the company — there’s one issue many leaders are blind to.

It’s what I call “top performer bias.”

Here’s how it works: You hire someone, they show outstanding performance and work ethic, and over time you pile more responsibilities on them. And then more responsibilities. And then more. Because you trust this person to do a great job and to care about their work, they become your go-to performer.

Taking advantage of high-level performers is one of the biggest mistakes a boss or business owner can make. Overworking great employees will not only make them resent you as a boss, but it will lead them out the door — sometimes not out of want, but out of need for their own personal health and sanity. 

The Negative Effects

“Top performer bias” can have detrimental effects on all levels of employees. For starters, they become conditioned to think that raising the bar will yield a negative response (“If I go above and beyond, I will get a heftier workload”). As a result, some of the employees witnessing this might choose to do the bare minimum so as not to put a target on their back. According to a 2013 survey, the leading source of stress in the workplace is workload, at 41%.

Also, when a boss treats employees differently on a public level, your team will start to feel disrespected. At one company I worked for, two full-time employees were not allowed to be put up on the “Team” section of the website. As far as I knew, there was no valid reason for this. Publicly treating others differently makes an impression on even your best employees who want to work for someone that values all team members.

4 Ways to Keep Your Top Performers Happy

You don’t have to buy an office ping-pong table or hire a personal chef to make employees happy. The following tips will help retain your most valuable people (which, if they’re working for you, should be all of them).

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

I cannot stress this enough. Communication is the key to success in any relationship, work or personal. When you, as a boss or manager, decide to give more responsibility to an employee, speak with them beforehand to make sure it’s doable for their workload. Make sure this communication is two-sided, and really listen to what they have to say. If this person is normally a great performer, you should be able to trust they’ll be honest with you. Allowing your employees to be a part of this decision will lead to a more positive experience for both of you, and will increase their respect for you as a manager.

2. Spread the Knowledge

The problem for bosses who practice “top performer bias,” aside from losing great employees, is that it’s not a scalable strategy. How many times have you heard, “I wish I could clone [insert top performer name here]”? Scalability is essential. Make the most of your top performers by asking them to train both new and existing employees in their department. Help them to understand why you chose to put them in a leadership position, and make them aware of the value they have in your company. 

Creating interactive training sessions with peers can be a fun way to better your work culture, increase morale, and boost team bonding. Training doesn’t have to be bootcamp style or a huge time suck — perhaps your office can take one Friday a month to go over important procedures and learn tips on how to execute certain tasks more efficiently. Separate into departmental groups in order for the training to be more effective, since not everyone in the company will need to focus on the same things. Make it fun and stay positive!

3. Train for Two

This goes hand-in-hand with Tip No. 2. In many startups and small businesses that require a lean team, it’s common to be the only person in the company who knows the ins-and-outs of your day-to-day role. Don’t let this happen. If an employee gets sick or takes a vacation, there must be at least one other team member qualified to take on the most primary responsibilities of another person’s job in the interim. 

Perhaps this lack of initial training is why, on average, full-time employees who have paid vacation days use only half of them. And no downtime to recharge is another reason for burnout.

4. Provide Incentives

Providing incentives for top-level employees is crucial. This makes your best performers feel more valued — a great balance to taking on more responsibilities, like the training method mentioned in No. 2 — and it provides more motivation for other team members to improve.

More money is always a great incentive, but if that’s not an option for your business, consider quarterly bonuses, a once-a-week remote day (that doesn’t interfere with meetings), or just some good ole public recognition. In my first corporate role, I worked for a company built on six core values. When someone went above and beyond, another team member could nominate them for practicing a core value, and they’d be presented a templatized certificate in front of the whole team and recognized on a weekly, companywide executive call.


Have additional tips you’d like to share based on your own work experiences? I’d love to hear your story at hirejessicabryant@gmail.com or feel free to leave them in the comments section below!

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