Over the years, I’ve seen performance punishment (and the fallout) in action countless times, so this article felt important.
Performance punishment, what is it?
Performance punishment is a phenomenon whereby high performing employees are given additional tasks, subjected to increased scrutiny or criticism, and/or expected to work longer hours because of their extreme efficiency and high competence.
In short, if you’ve ever heard yourself say ‘I expected more from them’ about a specific individual – whilst also not expecting more from someone else with the same remit – then it’s likely you’re pushing performance punishment.
There’s plenty of evidence and research into performance punishment, including a study from 2020 that high-performing employees are more likely to experience workload and performance pressure compared to their low-performing counterparts. One possible reason being that high-performing employees are seen as valuable assets to the business, leading to a desire to maximise their contributions.
I’ve seen time and again that high-performing employees are often held to higher standards than others, and the result is often resentment from managers when they don’t ‘achieve’, and feelings of unfair treatment from the individual.
Performance punishment, how can you prevent it?
Creating a culture of work-life balance
Leaders can promote work-life balance by setting clear expectations around work hours, encouraging employees to take time off, and providing opportunities for flexible work arrangements.
Setting clear expectations
Communicate clear expectations to all employees, including high-performers, to avoid overworking them. This includes setting realistic goals and timelines and providing the necessary resources and support to meet those goals.
Recognising employee contributions
Leaders should recognise the contributions of high-performing employees and reward them appropriately. This can include offering promotions, bonuses, or additional training and development opportunities.
Make sure you monitor the workload of all employees, including high-performers, to ensure that they are not being overworked or facing unrealistic expectations. Be prepared to adjust workload and expectations as needed to ensure that employees are not experiencing performance punishment.
Some high performers are their own worst enemies, pushing themselves ever harder to achieve more to the point of exhaustion. If this sounds like you (or you recognise someone else here) then self-awareness is part of the solution.
Organisational culture and social factors can also contribute to performance punishment. A study in 2016 found that a culture of overwork and a belief that working long hours is a sign of dedication and commitment can lead to overworking and performance punishment. This can create a cycle of overwork where high-performing employees feel pressure to meet these expectations to be seen as valuable employees.
A great reminder that we all run the risk of acting out performance punishment – take a moment to reflect.