How to manage an overperforming employee


When we talk about performance management, we tend to focus on dealing with employees who are not meeting expectations. But what about our best performers?

Managing an employee who is underperforming can be an uncomfortable task. Having to deliver negative feedback, however necessary, can turn into a difficult conversation, and managers are often tasked with striking a balance between driving improvement and maintaining morale.

By comparison, managing star performers can feel like a dream. Their ability to get things done effectively allows for a low-touch managerial style, and the high quality of their work gives the impression that they are thriving in their roles. 

However, according to Charles Brass FAHRI, Senior HR Business Partner at Moonee Valley City Council and Chair of the Futures Foundation, this impression might not be reflective of the whole truth.

“By and large, we respond to the issues that our line managers raise, and, by and large, the issues they raise are of underperformance,” he says. “The tendency is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

“It’s true that overperformers don’t need the same attention that underperformers might need. But they do need [support] for a variety of other reasons – not the least of which is that, if they don’t feel their needs are being met, they’re going to get up and leave.”

Issues that can arise with an overperforming employee

Since managers are aware that an overperforming employee will “get the job done”, they can make the assumption that things will be easy for them. 

Managers also tend to pile more work onto their best performers without considering how the extra load is impacting them. What’s more, the high performer, who may also exhibit perfectionist behaviour, might be hesitant to flag if they’re not coping for fear of having their ‘star’ badge revoked.

“They are also dragged into things they don’t necessarily need to be dragged into,” says Brass.

“Often, when managers are facing performance issues with a team, they tend to call the entire team in to have the conversation. While that is sometimes a necessary thing to do – because we’ve got to be treating everybody equally – there’s also an [opportunity] to say to those people, ‘We recognise that your circumstances are different. And we want to acknowledge and respect that.’”

When an employee is consistently exceeding expectations, it could be a sign that they are ready to move up the ladder in their organisation. However, that should be a gradual process. Research shows that the pressure placed on newly promoted employees can cause them to quit, so don’t just pile more responsibilities and power on a high performer without coaching them on how to manage a new role.

Read HRM’s articles on supporting your future leaders effectively.

If there is no immediate opportunity for a promotion, communicate with the employee about a performance management process that works for them and will allow them to thrive in their existing role until a chance to progress arises. This might look like the chance to lead team meetings or work on a project where they have full autonomy.

With that said, if an employee is overperforming to an extreme extent, it becomes much harder for managers to give them the support they need, says Brass.

“It’s true that overperformers don’t need the same attention that underperformers might need. But they do need [support] for a variety of other reasons.” – Charles Brass FAHRI

“Ninety per cent of those serious overperformers are in the wrong job. There’s about 10 per cent I’ve met who are just delighted to be doing the job and doing it exceptionally well, and they don’t want to do anything else. But for most of those people, the fact that they are seriously overperforming is an indication that there is capacity there that the organisation needs to recognise, or it’ll lose them. 

“Anyone who is seriously overperforming is not sustained unless they are continually challenged. This is true in almost every field of life. We’ve seen this with sports stars [when they] go to a second class team – they don’t last long, because they’re not being challenged by the rest of their teammates. They end up leaving, even though there are huge amounts of money involved, and they go to an environment where they are being challenged.”

Tailoring performance management to your strongest players

Particularly in larger organisations, performance management can sometimes feel like a box-ticking exercise for both employees and their managers. 

This can be exacerbated in the case of overperformers, since many elements of a formulaic feedback process will not be applicable to them.

While it is difficult to manage an underperformer without following a formal process, managing your star players might be suited to a more informal management style. The key, says Brass, is to communicate with them about how the process could be tailored to their preferences.

“These conversations around performance tend to be forced upon people. [Instead], you should try to find more organic ways for the conversations managers have with their staff to fit into this picture of performance.

“Rather than having a separate conversation around managing performance, you should do what is good practice anyway, which is to check how things are going, then talk about what’s going on and then have a bit of feedback at the end,” he says. 

During these conversations, managers should consider personalised ways to support high-performing workers to ensure that they are not bored, unchallenged or saddled with stacks of work that they don’t enjoy. 

Read HRM’s article on the three different types of burnout.

“When having that conversation with an overperformer, [you could say], for example, ‘I can clearly see that what we expect of you is being done. So could we give you a day where you spend some time choosing what work you’d like to do?’ Or, ‘There’s this project coming up in the organisation some time in the future. It’s a little outside your normal sphere of activity at the moment, but do you want to get involved in it?’”

This is a subtle version of job crafting and can be a great way to keep an overperforming employee challenged without pushing them too far, as the plan is led by their preferences.

Ensuring equitable feedback and support

When employers adopt different management approaches to employees based on their performance, one concern is that they could open themselves up to accusations of unfair treatment. 

Overperforming employees might feel that they are receiving less attention and development than their colleagues, while underperforming employees might resent any extra flexibility or opportunities offered to high achievers. 

“Ninety per cent of those serious overperformers are in the wrong job.”  – Charles Brass FAHRI

To address these concerns, Brass recommends ensuring that the amount of attention given to each employee is consistent, even if the type of attention might be different.

“That’s the way to deal with the perception that you’re dealing with people differently. [We could say], ‘Yes, it’s true that the conversation I’m having with you, the underperformer is different from the conversation I’m having with them, the overperformer. But the fact that I’m meeting with both of you means I’m treating you the same.”

Reward and recognition may also look different for these two groups, he says – for managers, this requires a careful balance between giving employees the recognition they need to remain motivated without showing favouritism.

“We’ve moved a long way from thinking that reward and recognition is all about money,” he says. “But I think organisations, particularly large organisations, have a way to go in managing these reward and recognition programs for people who are clearly performing at or above a level that is required.”

By providing ample consultation, tailored support and opportunities for growth, leaders can ensure that their star players don’t become victims of their own success.


Develop the necessary skills to build and sustain a high performing work team and tap into the full potential of team members with this short course from AHRI.


 

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Julie
Julie
8 months ago

I wonder if managing a knowledge worker might be handled a bit differently. In those types of roles its a bit harder to allocate a day to be working on something else. When they are a specialist for the organisation, they tend to be thinking about the role even when they aren’t at work, so stopping that for one day, and not seeing that as extra load could be difficult. In my experience what those employees value the most is coaching, where the manager clearly isn’t the expert but can help the specialist reconsider their strategies and work through blockages… Read more »

Whistleblower
Whistleblower
8 months ago

Referring to this phrase as follow: “Anyone who is seriously overperforming is not sustained unless they are continually challenged” In my personal opinion, I’m afraid I have to disagree with this line. Every individual is different, I think they should be asked what is their current situation, as far as I know maybe some of them want to start their own business but they can not be compensated, or rewarded plus they have not received the copyright payment of their brilliant and unique ideas yet. To my knowledge, people are free to make any decisions for their lives and careers,… Read more »

Louis Agbo
Louis Agbo
8 months ago

I quite agree with this submission. Those who perform exceedingly well always want to be appreciated, and challenged. They are not comfortable doing the daily routine that other employees engage in without doing other new things. Employers should pay more attention to this set of employees so they do not over work them or make them disenaged.

More on HRM

How to manage an overperforming employee


When we talk about performance management, we tend to focus on dealing with employees who are not meeting expectations. But what about our best performers?

Managing an employee who is underperforming can be an uncomfortable task. Having to deliver negative feedback, however necessary, can turn into a difficult conversation, and managers are often tasked with striking a balance between driving improvement and maintaining morale.

By comparison, managing star performers can feel like a dream. Their ability to get things done effectively allows for a low-touch managerial style, and the high quality of their work gives the impression that they are thriving in their roles. 

However, according to Charles Brass FAHRI, Senior HR Business Partner at Moonee Valley City Council and Chair of the Futures Foundation, this impression might not be reflective of the whole truth.

“By and large, we respond to the issues that our line managers raise, and, by and large, the issues they raise are of underperformance,” he says. “The tendency is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

“It’s true that overperformers don’t need the same attention that underperformers might need. But they do need [support] for a variety of other reasons – not the least of which is that, if they don’t feel their needs are being met, they’re going to get up and leave.”

Issues that can arise with an overperforming employee

Since managers are aware that an overperforming employee will “get the job done”, they can make the assumption that things will be easy for them. 

Managers also tend to pile more work onto their best performers without considering how the extra load is impacting them. What’s more, the high performer, who may also exhibit perfectionist behaviour, might be hesitant to flag if they’re not coping for fear of having their ‘star’ badge revoked.

“They are also dragged into things they don’t necessarily need to be dragged into,” says Brass.

“Often, when managers are facing performance issues with a team, they tend to call the entire team in to have the conversation. While that is sometimes a necessary thing to do – because we’ve got to be treating everybody equally – there’s also an [opportunity] to say to those people, ‘We recognise that your circumstances are different. And we want to acknowledge and respect that.’”

When an employee is consistently exceeding expectations, it could be a sign that they are ready to move up the ladder in their organisation. However, that should be a gradual process. Research shows that the pressure placed on newly promoted employees can cause them to quit, so don’t just pile more responsibilities and power on a high performer without coaching them on how to manage a new role.

Read HRM’s articles on supporting your future leaders effectively.

If there is no immediate opportunity for a promotion, communicate with the employee about a performance management process that works for them and will allow them to thrive in their existing role until a chance to progress arises. This might look like the chance to lead team meetings or work on a project where they have full autonomy.

With that said, if an employee is overperforming to an extreme extent, it becomes much harder for managers to give them the support they need, says Brass.

“It’s true that overperformers don’t need the same attention that underperformers might need. But they do need [support] for a variety of other reasons.” – Charles Brass FAHRI

“Ninety per cent of those serious overperformers are in the wrong job. There’s about 10 per cent I’ve met who are just delighted to be doing the job and doing it exceptionally well, and they don’t want to do anything else. But for most of those people, the fact that they are seriously overperforming is an indication that there is capacity there that the organisation needs to recognise, or it’ll lose them. 

“Anyone who is seriously overperforming is not sustained unless they are continually challenged. This is true in almost every field of life. We’ve seen this with sports stars [when they] go to a second class team – they don’t last long, because they’re not being challenged by the rest of their teammates. They end up leaving, even though there are huge amounts of money involved, and they go to an environment where they are being challenged.”

Tailoring performance management to your strongest players

Particularly in larger organisations, performance management can sometimes feel like a box-ticking exercise for both employees and their managers. 

This can be exacerbated in the case of overperformers, since many elements of a formulaic feedback process will not be applicable to them.

While it is difficult to manage an underperformer without following a formal process, managing your star players might be suited to a more informal management style. The key, says Brass, is to communicate with them about how the process could be tailored to their preferences.

“These conversations around performance tend to be forced upon people. [Instead], you should try to find more organic ways for the conversations managers have with their staff to fit into this picture of performance.

“Rather than having a separate conversation around managing performance, you should do what is good practice anyway, which is to check how things are going, then talk about what’s going on and then have a bit of feedback at the end,” he says. 

During these conversations, managers should consider personalised ways to support high-performing workers to ensure that they are not bored, unchallenged or saddled with stacks of work that they don’t enjoy. 

Read HRM’s article on the three different types of burnout.

“When having that conversation with an overperformer, [you could say], for example, ‘I can clearly see that what we expect of you is being done. So could we give you a day where you spend some time choosing what work you’d like to do?’ Or, ‘There’s this project coming up in the organisation some time in the future. It’s a little outside your normal sphere of activity at the moment, but do you want to get involved in it?’”

This is a subtle version of job crafting and can be a great way to keep an overperforming employee challenged without pushing them too far, as the plan is led by their preferences.

Ensuring equitable feedback and support

When employers adopt different management approaches to employees based on their performance, one concern is that they could open themselves up to accusations of unfair treatment. 

Overperforming employees might feel that they are receiving less attention and development than their colleagues, while underperforming employees might resent any extra flexibility or opportunities offered to high achievers. 

“Ninety per cent of those serious overperformers are in the wrong job.”  – Charles Brass FAHRI

To address these concerns, Brass recommends ensuring that the amount of attention given to each employee is consistent, even if the type of attention might be different.

“That’s the way to deal with the perception that you’re dealing with people differently. [We could say], ‘Yes, it’s true that the conversation I’m having with you, the underperformer is different from the conversation I’m having with them, the overperformer. But the fact that I’m meeting with both of you means I’m treating you the same.”

Reward and recognition may also look different for these two groups, he says – for managers, this requires a careful balance between giving employees the recognition they need to remain motivated without showing favouritism.

“We’ve moved a long way from thinking that reward and recognition is all about money,” he says. “But I think organisations, particularly large organisations, have a way to go in managing these reward and recognition programs for people who are clearly performing at or above a level that is required.”

By providing ample consultation, tailored support and opportunities for growth, leaders can ensure that their star players don’t become victims of their own success.


Develop the necessary skills to build and sustain a high performing work team and tap into the full potential of team members with this short course from AHRI.


 

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

3 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Julie
Julie
8 months ago

I wonder if managing a knowledge worker might be handled a bit differently. In those types of roles its a bit harder to allocate a day to be working on something else. When they are a specialist for the organisation, they tend to be thinking about the role even when they aren’t at work, so stopping that for one day, and not seeing that as extra load could be difficult. In my experience what those employees value the most is coaching, where the manager clearly isn’t the expert but can help the specialist reconsider their strategies and work through blockages… Read more »

Whistleblower
Whistleblower
8 months ago

Referring to this phrase as follow: “Anyone who is seriously overperforming is not sustained unless they are continually challenged” In my personal opinion, I’m afraid I have to disagree with this line. Every individual is different, I think they should be asked what is their current situation, as far as I know maybe some of them want to start their own business but they can not be compensated, or rewarded plus they have not received the copyright payment of their brilliant and unique ideas yet. To my knowledge, people are free to make any decisions for their lives and careers,… Read more »

Louis Agbo
Louis Agbo
8 months ago

I quite agree with this submission. Those who perform exceedingly well always want to be appreciated, and challenged. They are not comfortable doing the daily routine that other employees engage in without doing other new things. Employers should pay more attention to this set of employees so they do not over work them or make them disenaged.

More on HRM