Learning & Development, Recruiting

Ignore Your Best Employees, and They’ll Go Away!

The modern U.S. economy is heavily people-driven. Unlike in the more industrial economy of the previous century, what sets great companies apart from good companies today is more likely their human resources than their physical capital, like factories and machines. It’s perhaps surprising, then, when we hear that high-performing employees often feel neglected and underserved by their managers.

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But, as we’ll see, there are a variety of reasons this is often the feeling many top performers express when discussing their relationships with their managers. For some, the hands-off approach may be a welcome source of freedom and flexibility. Others, though, may lament or even resent the lack of support, mentoring, and coaching they might expect from a manager.

Why would a manager ignore top performers? There are actually some very logical reasons.

  1. They’re Taking the Wrong Focus

In their book First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman point to a common misstep made by many managers, parents, teachers, and others: focusing on helping others overcome their weaknesses rather than focusing on helping them strengthen their strengths. With a team full of high performers and one difficult employee, managers are likely to spend an inordinate amount of time with the difficult employee, thus, in effect, ignoring the high performers.

Managers are also often very short on time.

2. They’re Pulled in Too Many Directions

In any corporation, everyone has a boss. The CEO is responsible to the board of directors, and even the board of directors is responsible to the shareholders. This means every manager has his or her own manager, and each often also has his or her own individual responsibilities to attend to.

In short, time is at a premium for managers. They often find themselves having to drop everything to put out fires and deal with critical issues despite their best-laid plans for managing their time. In this context, keeping tabs on an employee who consistently delivers is understandably low on a manager’s priority list.

This has been especially true during the pandemic.

3. They’ve Overwhelmed, and It’s Exacerbated by Remote Work

Managers were really thrown into the fire in March 2020, when many found themselves managing employees either entirely remotely or in some hybrid manner. They had to acclimate to this change quickly. It’s fair to say that few actually received any specific training in how to manage remote workers effectively. It’s also probably fair to say that many are still struggling with these remote management relationships (which is likely why many organizations are trying to get employees to come back to their physical workspaces).

That lack of physical contact for high performers can increase their odds of being overlooked. A manager who might have neglected a high performer until the worker happened to walk past his or her office may neglect that employee almost completely in a remote environment, where the manager isn’t physically reminded of the employee’s presence.

4. They Use Confidence in Their Employees as an Excuse

Results matter in the business world, so when managers consistently get great results from an employee, it’s easy to simply view those results as a sign of top performance. With such great results, it may seem logical to assume the employee is just doing fine on his or her own.

However, performing job duties well isn’t the only sign that an employee is “doing well” and, consequently, doesn’t need any attention. This worker may be interested in career development and professional growth opportunities. He or she may be feeling uncertain about a new project’s requirements or be having challenges interacting with other employees, customers, vendors, or others.

Or, the employee may be burned out and thus at high risk of turnover.

The Burnout Landmine

“High performing employees have a higher likelihood of experiencing burnout due to the increased expectations placed on them,” explains Laura Ribadeneira, Director of HR Research and Advisory Services at HR analyst firm McLean & Company. “Because high performers often hold themselves to a high standard of work, they feel extra pressure to perform and be seen as ‘okay,’ making them more susceptible to burnout. High performers may also have a hard time revealing when there are problems because they don’t want to risk being seen in anything but a positive light.”

Taking a too-distant approach to top-performer management risks missing the early signs of burnout. What managers who neglect top performers often fail to appreciate is that management is about people management, as well as performance management.

The Need for a Different Kind of Attention

Focusing exclusively on the needs of the organization and neglecting the needs of the employee is a short-sighted approach to management and one that is particularly detrimental in the current labor market, where employees can and are using their leverage to negotiate better employment relationships or simply seeking greater offers elsewhere. Managers might not need to micromanage their top performers, but that doesn’t mean they should ignore them entirely.

“The fact that top performers don’t need constant guidance and follow-up doesn’t mean they don’t need to be paid attention to,” says James Crawford, cofounder of DealDrop. “They just need another type of attention. They need appreciation, compensation, and growth opportunities. If they get nothing for their great performances, they’ll find another place to give them that.”

Companies that fail to provide this kind of attention risk a lack of engagement and higher turnover among their high performers. “When managers neglect top performers, they sometimes lose motivation,” explains Jared Stern, founder and CEO of Uplift Legal Funding. “This will result in them becoming average performers. It can be tough to bring them back to form.” The result is that quality will significantly be affected, Stern adds. They may lose trust in themselves and the organization, resulting in a negative attitude. And that’s a slippery slope.

“Top performers will not think twice before leaving an organization that doesn’t value them,” Stern continues. “Top performers require recognition, appreciation, and acknowledgment. So, managers must find a fine balance between low training performers and managing high performers.”

In the modern economy, recruiting, retaining, and developing the best talent are crucial to any company’s long-term success. Unfortunately, managers are often so busy with babysitting low performers and attending to their other numerous duties up, down, and across the org chart that they neglect their top performers.

While taking a hands-off approach with top performers may be low risk from the standpoint of potential negative short-term outcomes, it can also make it difficult to capitalize on the long-term potential of the top performers.

Competent managers may keep the ship afloat by letting top performers self-manage while the managers focus on more pressing matters. Great managers find a way to meet the baseline requirements while nurturing the valuable human resources—and keeping them motivated, engaged, and on board.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.