A common thread in many of our Better Manager blogs surrounds creating or being a top performer, but we haven’t talked about the nuances of managing them. Think about the top performers in your organization – you probably have some who are a joy to manage and your biggest issue is coming up with ways to motivate or challenge them. That’s not our topic for today. Let’s discuss the other group of top performers who expect “star treatment.” Do you have any who require special consideration? Are they exempt from routine processes or time-consuming activities? Do you tolerate some behaviors that you wouldn’t accept from others? Do you find yourself making excuses or exceptions for their poor behavior?
We’ve all seen examples of top performers who get (or demand) special treatment:
- The top salesperson who doesn’t like to do the necessary paperwork
- The brilliant employee who’ll work on anything as long as it was his/her idea
- The super-reliable employee who takes on the most challenging projects, but doesn’t work well with others or won’t
- The person who always gets results (as long as you don’t look too closely at their methods)
These people may also generate a fair amount of energy-sucking office drama. Sometimes they earn additional labels that aren’t as flattering as “top performer” – like “prima donna”, “toxic”, “jerks at work” or – my personal choice – a “management burden”. By the time they’ve been labeled with one of these terms, it’s time to make a decision about changing them, not always the easiest path, or removing them from the organization. The all-around negative impact, from productivity to ill-will, may just not be worth it. There’s lots of data to tell us the cost of hiring a replacement, but don’t fool yourself. There is a real cost to keeping them around.
If your top performer is exempt from certain responsibilities, you’ve passed that burden on to others who have to compensate or cover for the top performer. While assigning responsibilities to the right resource is one of the best practices we strive for, making exceptions for “top performers” is risky and has cascading effects on productivity. Instead of serving to motivate others to achieve top performer status, it more often creates frustration over the special treatment. If that resentment persists, you risk losing employees who may have been well on their way to being some of your best, as well as the possibilities of reinforcing a culture you didn’t bargain for.
If you accept that your top performer plays by different rules, you have just sent a message to everyone else that the rules don’t really matter. You are, in effect, encouraging others to question the need to follow the rules. Now you’ve either lost control or you’ve lost credibility. Regaining these requires considerable effort and energy that you won’t be able to spend on achieving your department’s goals. We’re not saying that you manage each person the same, but that you understand why you made the decisions as there may be some validity that you can then communicate to others. But more importantly, know if the repercussions are worth it.
Finally, allowing top performers to operate according to their own priorities may weaken your company’s ability to enforce or promote your core values. If a top performer doesn’t support and follow the company values, others will assume that those values are simply no more than a window dressing.
A few years ago, I came across an employee who was passionate about delivering for our clients, diligent about communicating requirements and innovative in creating solutions for the company. They had a strong track record of closing big accounts. They also had a history of withholding information, ignoring established timelines and making promises they weren’t authorized to make. We went through all the issue above – special rules, different standards, etc. – and other departments soon learned that anything that had this person’s name on it was going to be “special” sending them into a firestorm of unproductive activities. It took us longer than it should to address this behavior and retain the positive aspects of the energy and success they brought, but limit the negative impact of disrupting processes and last-minute scrambles.
If you have one of these prima donna/toxic/jerk/burdensome employees, what can you do?
Spend some time re-establishing responsibilities and be clear that while you appreciate their performance in some areas, they are not exempt from the other job requirements. In addition, you must treat these situations in the same way you treat other performance issues – identify the behaviors to be changed, define the desired behaviors, set out timelines and document consequences for failure to comply. Then don’t be shy about sticking to the performance plan or making the tough decision. At worst, you rid your department of a negative influence and at best, you have a top performer who really shines for your entire organization.
Nancy Lane, Director of Human Resources, Red Book Solutions