Harvard Business Online

What Alienates Top Performers


Posted on I Quit—Now What?: August 27, 2009 4:22 PM

When asked what factors matter most in retaining talented employees, most of us can name the big ones: pay, advancement, recognition, exciting challenges, the long-term prospects of the organization, the quality of its leadership, and so on. But like other employees, top performers spend most of their time living with the day-to-day decisions of their direct managers. What distinguishes a top performer is that she often has the talent to do her manager's job and a keen ability to assess her manager's choices. That makes her more likely than other employees to seek a change in her work situation if she perceives those small matters as hindrances to her performance, even if the big factors pass muster.

Here are the little things that top performers tend to notice quickly, find irksome, and cite as job drawbacks when they confide in colleagues and when they decide to leave an organization. (The list is not based on systematic research but rather on what I've observed anecdotally, and often, working alongside top performers in a variety of business contexts.)

1. Dropped balls. No one likes when a manager allows important matters to slip through his hands and bounce away, only to be recovered when an employee is bold enough to restore them to his attention. But top performers are especially likely to feel responsible to do that recovery and to be disappointed in the manager whose oversight forced them to it (assuming they're not motivated by one-upsmanship). That's not to say that top performers don't recognize the deliberate selection of balls to juggle as a managerial strength, but when efficiency is compromised because of inattention rather than priority-setting, dropped balls just look like an uninspired mess.

2. Ignoring tough questions. One mark of a good manager is the ability to address relevant questions head on, even if that means admitting there's no clear answer at present. Political deftness (of the honest variety) is a quality that all employees, but especially top performers, respect. When a manager frequently ignores or clumsily deflects important concerns, top performers are particularly likely to be nagged by it, because it seems to reflect the manager's inability or unwillingness to assess matters on the merits. Top performers have a natural stake in meritorious assessment.

3. Lopsided reliance on data over judgment. Sensible analysis of numerical data is an essential component of any manager's job, especially at high levels of an organization. No one likes a decision maker who acts on whim. However, when a manager uses data as a crutch—or lack of data as an excuse for inaction—employees become skeptical about his capacity for good judgment. That's especially troubling to top performers, whose own judgment skills are sharp and whose interest in being evaluated by capable judgers is high. Top performers more than anyone want a leader, not a mere number-cruncher.

4. Unease with leadership skills in the ranks. Great managers are genuinely delighted by the leadership potential of their best people (as they see a bit of themselves in those employees) and enjoy grooming them. And, fortunately, few managers seem to have utter disdain for the truly talented people who report to them. But a fair number of managers are more comfortable with the steady pluggers (employees who produce but don't aspire) than with the highest-potential folks, and top performers detect that sort of complacency right away. That said, show-off behavior must be nipped in the bud—but without stunting the top performer's growth.

What factors have you observed—as a manager, in your colleagues, or as a top performer yourself—that tend to alienate the most talented employees in the course of their day-to-day work?
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math to adults at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Mass.

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