The Burden of High Performance.

Early on in my career I stumbled upon what was, to me, an astonishing fact: there was little correlation between work performance and the rewards that came from it. I could bust my hump and be the top of the metrics (I was working in a call center at the time) or I could simply meet my KPIs without breaking too much of a sweat. The end result? Nearly identical in both cases so my work habits tended very quickly towards doing only what was required of me nothing more. This further evolved later in my career into only doing the work that would get noticed as doing anything else would prove of little benefit to me. Indeed I came to realise that being a stellar performer is often not worth it, even if you’re capable of doing it.

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Research into this area has shown that being a high performer is a thankless task. When presented with two potential employees to assign work to, one with low self control and the other with higher, people will more often than not assign more work to the person with higher self control. In the real world this means that a high performer will be assigned more work and the low performer less. However rarely does this correlate to how each of those workers is rewarded for their performance, meaning that high performers are essentially doing more work for the same reward. Thus there is an active disincentive for anyone to be perceived as a high performer, lest they unnecessarily burden themselves.

Indeed I found as much throughout my career. Being able to take care of your assigned tasks in less time than others often meant I’d be left looking for other tasks to occupy my time. Quite often this would result in being assigned busy work that didn’t need to be done and, even if it was done well, would go completely unnoticed. Thus I resigned myself to doing the work I needed to do and not seeking out anything beyond that, allowing me more time to dedicate to tasks that I felt warranted it. This then translated into me always having time to help out others when they needed me whilst not burdening me with pointless work that wouldn’t get noticed.

In my current employment however I have found that there is tangible benefit to demonstrating my skill. Instead of simply assigning me more work I’m instead presented with opportunities that might not be available to everyone else. Such challenges are often interesting and potentially career making, providing an incentive to work harder to show that I’m capable of completing them. It’s this kind of recognition which I feel is the best way to encourage your best performers to keep doing what they’re doing and to motivate others to do the same.

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