A little over a year ago, a high-performing specialist at one of the largest technologies companies — we’ll call him Santiago — was given an opportunity no high performer could turn down: an opportunity to play a manager role on a project he cared about. The director told him, “You care about this; you lead it.” So he did, and all seemed to be going well — even though he was planning a significant company-wide event at the same time, a role he had volunteered for. “We had a really important conference call I had spent a lot of time preparing for. The call went well, but when I finished the call, I realised I was feeling sick,” Santiago recounts. “It got worse after that. I went to the doctor later that day, and he told me I had pneumonia. I ended up in the ER the next morning and couldn’t work for the full next week. It was a shocking moment for me. I’m young and healthy, but I realised that if I push myself, I will burn out.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t an unusual experience for high performers: A five-year study in the UK found that the mental health of 20% of the top-performing leaders of UK businesses is affected by corporate burnout. It’s easy to blame burnout on the high performers themselves. After all, the stereotype is that these overachievers say yes to more work even when they’re already at capacity. They routinely put work first, cancelling personal engagements to finish the job. While such habits may be partially to blame, this isn’t the full story. In my experience, many companies and leaders engage in three common practices, often unknowingly, that make top performers even more likely to burn out:
They put high performers on the hardest projects. “The most obvious difference between high performers and their peers is that high performers are put on the hardest projects over and over again. There are no ‘softball’ projects,” says a high-performing manager at a leading strategy and management consulting firm, who we’ll call Lisa. It makes sense: Of course, you’d want your best people on the most important projects. But if you keep going back to the same small group of people time and time again, you’ll run the risk of wearing them out.
They use high performers to compensate for weaker team members. Lisa describes another unique characteristic of the experience of high performers: “You’re seen as an exemplary employee, so you’re expected to support lower performers and mentor others.” A senior manager from a leading technology company, who we’ll call Karen, recounts her experience on a project where this was true: “I spent a lot of time trying to coach and mentor them and quite honestly taking on a lot of their work because you feel that is what you’re supposed to do when others are struggling.” While many star performers do enjoy mentoring others, they understandably start to feel resentful if they think the boss is letting poor performers off the hook.
They ask high performers to help with many small efforts unrelated to their work. “As a high performer, you have demanded as a culture carrier, a mentor, and a resource for others,” Lisa says. Similarly, Karen describes how this practice affects herself and her high-performing team members: “They are constantly being asked to help in small ways. ‘You’re good at making slides. Can you make this one slide?’ ‘You’re good at WordPress. Can you add this page?’ I just realise how much time I’ve spent on all these one-off requests the last few weeks. And that’s why I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything done.” While this issue is often framed as a personal problem for people who don’t know how to set boundaries or say no, it’s more fairly seen as an organisational problem where the most hardworking people are “rewarded” with more work. To fix this, managers can start by becoming more aware of how these practices are affecting their organisations and looking to scale them back when possible. Beyond that, employers and leaders should look to three other strategies to help them support their high performers for the long term:
Let high performers occasionally pick their projects. High performers generally are very motivated by the work. They don’t regularly get the option to do the projects they care most about unless it happens to also be the hardest project available, or unless they agree to do it on top of their normal work. Letting them choose some of their projects reconnects them with the reason they are excited to do their job — something that can get lost in the throes of burnout. Lisa explains how such an opportunity saved her consulting job: “When I asked to be on a new project, I was managing a big team in addition to my other work, which included an exceptionally busy project. On the team I was managing, there was a low performer who was put on the team specifically for me to mentor and an inexperienced team member who couldn’t work too independently…. To add to all that, the partner was largely unavailable. I had to carry the team. After all that, I probably would have left if they hadn’t granted my request to go on the project I asked for.”
Create high-performing pairs. High performers routinely find themselves separated from those they most closely relate to and enjoy working with. This happens for obvious reasons, but surrounding them with low performers increases their workload, saps their morale, and limits their development. Pairing two high performers of a similar level can help distribute this added weight and improve high performers’ experience without leaving some teams with no high performers. “When I got to work with other high performers, it felt like a different experience. Not only did it make me feel more motivated, but it made me better because the other high performers were pushing my thinking. That’s how you keep high performers growing. It’s not just putting them on the hardest projects,” Lisa says. It’s important to emphasise that these pairs should consist of employees at the same or a similar level. Placing a high-performing entry-level employee with a high-performing leader won’t have the same effect.
Keep track of additional demands on their time. Demands unrelated to core work are unsuspected drivers of burnout because they each feel so insignificant and it’s hard to keep track of their aggregate effect. Karen offers the transition she put her team through as an example of how to address this: “We get a lot of requests into our team, and because we all want to serve others and say yes, we ended up spending all our time on work not related to our priorities. I spent a few months breaking them of that by saying, ‘You don’t have the authority to say yes to anything. You can’t say yes or no. You need to talk to me. It’s my job to balance all priorities.’ And this gives them a layer of protection.”
Employers or leaders won’t always need to be as draconian as this. In many cases, simply keeping track of all the requests in a single place can equip high performers with the awareness to turn down some of the incoming requests. These three strategies may seem to offer only marginal benefits, but it’s the accumulation of small savings and improvements that reduce the risk of burnout over time. High performers hold great value for any company, delivering 400% more productivity than average performers. Companies will lose much of this value if they don’t take deliberate action to protect their high performers from burnout.
Credit: Matt Plummer for Harvard Business Review, 21 June 2018.