Is High Performance a Zero-Sum Game?

Paul Hebert Culture, Employee Development, HR, Managing People, Performance, Recognition, Retention, Talent Management, Training and Development, Workforce Management Articles

I read a lot of HR stuff about high performers. We all want an entire population of these employees at our companies. Adding more high performers means better overall results, which means better everything, right?

Maybe not.

Depending on your culture, you could be making it hard for the best performers to stay.

As Long As It Helps Me

A paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2017 studied how high performers were received in their companies. And the results were, how should I say this…weird.

The study found that high performers are supported when they are seen as an enhancement to the others’ performance. However, if they are seen as a threat, the high performers are actively undermined by their peers. And it isn’t just in companies with poor culture. Companies with highly cooperative cultures actually undermine high performers more than less cooperative cultures. It seems that no one likes to be shown up–even when it helps. The study suggests that this is one reason why these performers are difficult to retain (note: they are difficult to retain everywhere–not just at your company).

In other words, many people see high performance as a zero-sum game. If one person is excelling, that means others, by comparison, are not.

So, it’s a bit of a paradox. I want top performers, but they won’t always be welcomed with open arms, and they will be difficult to retain.

It’s All About What You Recognize

The article that highlights this study suggests better training for high performers, so they understand their impact on the overall company (jealous much?), and counseling, to help them build relationships with other employees. It also talks about how managers can leverage the best each person on the team can contribute so that they can spread the high-performance feeling around. Those are great, but it does nothing to change the culture. It is all on the high-performing individual to make it work.

One thing I think they missed is the use of the company’s ongoing peer-to-peer and manager recognition program. Knowing this is an issue, you can train managers and others how to ensure high performers know that we see their effort, while also letting others know that the company values their support of people who work hard and are top performers. A little Column A, a little Column B.

Expert use of recognition programs ensures your culture rewards cooperation AND high-performance contributions.

When recognizing people for their efforts, also recognize those who helped that person. No one is an island and rarely does one person singularly achieve top performance. Someone or some team definitely helped. Spread the (recognition) wealth and make it known that the company culture is one that supports the individuals working within teams, and not individuals working despite teams.

Make it obvious that high performance isn’t a scare tactic, it is something everyone can have.

Teach Them Well

Never assume people know what to reward or how to reward–they don’t. What each of us knows is what has been done on an individual level in the past. I am the product of my experiences, and if I have only experienced recognition as a top performer, I will assume recognition is ONLY for top performers. You need to train your people on recognition, and how to use it to mitigate problems such as this.

Don’t just recognize your top performers. Teach your people that everyone contributes and even the best performers have help–and make sure the high-performing individual knows it, too.

Don’t let the company think high performance is a zero-sum game. It isn’t. Individual high performance raises everyone’s performance.