Performance Punishment…taking advantage or utilising talent?

Celia Jones

Employee sitting in office in front of laptop

When I think about the old proverb paraphrased by Lucille Ball,

“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it,”

it’s as if she were speaking directly to the challenges faced by today’s workforce in 2023. I often find myself in conversations with senior employees who express their frustrations, primarily stemming from their heavy workloads and the relentless demands.

So what is Performance Punishment?

From a leadership perspective, I can readily admit that sometimes it seems easier to assign tasks to high-performing individuals rather than invest the time in working with those who may need additional support and capability training to fulfill a request. High-performing employees are truly invaluable to any organisation. They consistently exceed expectations, deliver exceptional results, and play a pivotal role in driving the overall success of the business. However, it’s not uncommon for these exceptional individuals to face negative consequences for their remarkable productivity. This phenomenon is what we refer to as “performance punishment,” and its implications are profound, affecting both the morale of high performers, overall performance of the organisation and cost to the individual and organisation.

Performance punishment occurs when high-performing employees experience adverse outcomes, such as:

  • an increased and unrealistic workload
  • Limited support from managers and peers
  • unreasonable deadlines
  • limited opportunities for growth and advancement.

In many instances, performance punishment is unintentional. Managers may not fully comprehend the impact of their decisions on high-performing employees. For instance, they might assign additional tasks to high performers without considering their existing workload or the potential impact on their overall performance.

What is the impact of Performance Punishment?

The ramifications of performance punishment on the morale of high performers can be significant. They may start to feel overworked, undervalued, and underappreciated, leading to burnout, disengagement, and, in extreme cases, resignation.

Furthermore, the organisational culture can be profoundly affected. For high performers and hard-working staff, to watch fellow team members talk around the water cooler about last night’s latest TV show, take long lunches, and finish on the dot, it eventually destroys a high performer’s willingness to contribute.

High-performing employees are typically driven by a desire to contribute to the organisation’s success. However, when subjected to performance punishment, their motivation may wane, and their commitment to the organisation may diminish, ultimately impacting overall organisational performance.

Another consequence of performance punishment is the creation of a culture of underperformance. When managers fail to address underperformers, it sends a message to the rest of the team that low performance is acceptable. This, in turn, can lead to a decline in the overall performance of the organisation.

High-performing individuals may become resentful of underperformers who are not held accountable for their actions. This resentment can foster a toxic work environment where high performers feel that their efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated.

How can we reduce Performance Management?

Fortunately, leaders can take proactive steps to address performance punishment and promote a more equitable work environment.

Performance Management

One approach is to implement a performance management system that not only rewards high performers but also holds underperformers accountable. This helps establish a culture of high performance where everyone is held to the same standard.

Development Opportunities 

Providing support and development opportunities for high-performing employees can help mitigate the negative impact of performance punishment and ensure that these individuals continue to grow and develop within the organisation. 

Management Training 

Managers training is important to recognise the consequences of their actions on high-performing employees. Encouraging managers to provide feedback and recognition to high performers and ensuring that their workloads are manageable and sustainable can make a significant difference. From my experience, many of us can benefit from setting and managing our boundaries with our leaders and our teams.

Learning to say no “with grace” to extra work when you are at capacity is a lifelong skill that will benefit you.

Performance punishment is a very real phenomenon with far-reaching consequences for both high-performing employees and the organisation. By taking proactive measures to address performance punishment, we can foster a more equitable work environment and ensure that high performers receive the recognition and appreciation they rightfully deserve.

OnTalent offers a range of support in leadership and performance coaching from specialists who can provide support to rectify this imbalance.

Celia Jones is a Senior Client Partner, Executive & Board with OnTalent. She brings many years of experience in Australia and abroad, partnering with leaders to identify, engage, recruit, and retain their people. Celia specialises in executive and board recruitment.

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