I recently read an article by Tom Fox called, Is Being Smart Making You Lonely? In the article Tom discusses the age old adage “It’s lonely at the top.” He suggests that more than 40% of workers feel lonely in the workplace and that there is a relationship between one’s level of education and the degree of loneliness felt in the workplace.
Those with Masters degrees are lonelier than those with Bachelors degrees who are lonelier than people with no college. – Tom Fox
This brought to mind an interesting piece of research I had recently come across which suggested a similar relationship with one’s level of performance. In today’s performance oriented world, high performing employees are valued by organizational leaders. But are they valued as much by their colleagues?
Invariably, average performers will at some point compare themselves with the high performers in the workplace. This can be great when high performers are good role-models and motivate their colleagues to increase their own productivity. For many, being associated with a high performer can feel good and can lead to an increase in self-esteem.
But what happens when employees feel that their own performance looks poor in comparison to the performance of high performers? Or what happens if employees believe that high performers reduce opportunities and organizational resources that could instead enhance the performance of their peers?
TO SUPPORT OR UNDERMINE HIGH PERFORMERS?
Researchers have found that when high performers are perceived to enhance the performance of other employees, they receive social support from their peers. If however they are perceived as a threat to the success or performance of other employees, their peers will seek to actively undermine these high performing colleagues. Such antisocial behavior often consists of aggression, exclusion, and ridicule, calculated to discreetly influence colleagues by eroding their positive perceptions of high performers within the organization. This can leave high performers feeling very lonely and unsatisfied in the workplace.
If high performers are perceived as a threat to the success or performance of other employees, their peers will seek to actively undermine these high performing colleagues.
Interestingly, the researchers also explored the level of cooperation present in the team climate and whether or not this had an effect. They anticipated that in more cooperative climates, outstanding individual performance would be perceived to consume valuable group resources (both social and physical) and thereby jeopardize the performance of the group as a whole. They found that the more cooperative the climate, the less likely high performers are to receive support by their peers and more likely to be undermined. This suggests the very efforts leaders make to boost overall team performance through collaboration may, if they have an individual who out performs other team members by a significant amount, alienate their start performers.
Alienation and constant lack of support is cause for dissatisfaction at work. For any employee, high performer or not, dissatisfaction is likely to result in reduced commitment and intentions to leave. Some will think, ‘Why bother?’ reducing their efforts and performance to the level of the rest of the team in order to fit in. Alternatively, driven to fulfil their potential and aware of the results they can produce, high performers will seek new workplaces where they believe their efforts will be valued. Either scenario is a poor outcome for both the leader of the team and the broader organisation.
WHAT TO DO AS A LEADER?
Here are seven things leaders can do to reduce the likelihood of their people undermining high performers within the team.
- Constantly cast the vision. By constantly sharing the vision of the team and the broader organisation, leaders are keeping the focus of their staff on the big picture and the collective goals of the team. When the team is focused on achieving those goals, individuals are less likely to focus on their own insecurities.
- Articulate average performers’ contribution. When people can articulate how they contribute to team performance and achieving strategic goals, they understand the value of their work and gain a sense of purpose – both of which foster engagement in the workplace.
- Show appreciation. Everyone wants to feel valued. If the only appreciation shown in the workplace is reserved for the high performers, average workers are less likely to feel valued. By showing appreciation to average workers, they feel valued and are less likely to become resentful towards their high performing colleagues.
- Get high performers contributing to the projects of others. When high performers contribute to projects that are run and owned by average workers, they see the high performer’s talents and organisational resources being used to produce results for ‘their’ project. The resultant sense of support means they are less likely to feel threatened.
- Praise high performers in private. As with point number three, public praise and appreciation is important for people to feel valued. However when high performers receive significantly more praise than others in public, they are perceived to be more valuable to the leader than other members of the team, potentially enhancing any inferiority of average workers, thus making them feel more threatened. By providing extra praise for high performers in private, leaders can ensure they communicate the recognition and value of the extra effort and superior results without unwittingly causing resentment within the rest of the team.
- Build positive relationships within the workplace. This is the foundation for all cohesion within teams. The more positive people’s experiences when interacting with others, the less they will perceive others in a negative way. The closer the team, the greater the levels of trust, the higher levels of commitment to each other as well as the collective efforts and goals. When such relationships abound in the workplace, there is little room for undermining behaviour.
- Continually develop all members of the team. A good leader will always be developing the capabilities of the individuals in their team. For average workers, this should focus on increasing workplace performance, so they themselves can become high performers. For the already high performers, this development may focus on developing interpersonal skills or understanding the value of being intentional about developing positive relationships and helping their colleagues. In both cases, the individual consideration and investment by the leader increases the sense of value experienced by staff.
High performers are incredibly valuable to any organisation. Yet by themselves they can only achieve so much. Within a supportive team however, they can multiply the results the team can achieve exponentially. It is important good leaders create an environment that can not only leverage the talents of their stars, but also foster a sense of value and worth for all members within the team. Failure to do so may result in their high performers having targets on their backs, feeling alienated and looking to leave.