Even High Performers Need Direction and Support
5 January, 2021
Senior Manager, Product Design at HashiCorp
I had a person on my team who was an overachiever and had been consistently a high performer from the moment they joined the organization. When I inherited their team earlier this year, I was stunned by their performance. For a while, I thought that such a high performer wouldn’t need anything from me. But as I started to have more regular conversations with this person, I realized that they were stressing themselves out and were convinced that they should be killing it on eight different fronts simultaneously. I was too well aware — unfortunately, from my own experience — of all the pitfalls high performance brings along. As a leader, I was responsible for preventing that.
First off, I had to prevent the imminent burnout and then try to understand the underlying reasons driving my high-performing employee to a continual above-and-beyond mode of work. They needed to take some time off because their continual high performance could impact their physical and mental health.
Then I started by helping them learn to prioritize. No one can work on eight initiatives at the same time in a sustainable manner. Some of the things they were working at were nice-to-haves and others were important but hardly urgent. However, three of the eight were critical for implementing the team vision and I asked them to focus on those ranking them in priority order of 1, 2, and 3.
My efforts were met with appreciation and gratitude. They told me that they felt close to burnout and were stuck in “can’t stop/won’t stop” mode. My report noticed immediate improvements — they were able to streamline their focus and make an impact in the areas that mattered most. Over time, they started to feel more productive, more focused and their work-life balance improved. It took a series of one-on-ones and some time and determination to get there.
I haven’t always been as successful in the past. In a previous role, I was managing someone who I felt was doing great, and I failed to notice early warning signs of burnout. I didn’t provide timely feedback and the person experienced burnout and quit their job.
Building trust is a crucial component of understanding someone’s situation and being able to provide feedback. Even if you are cognizant of the severity of their situation, your feedback may not land well if there is no trust. Part of building trust comes from a shared, lived-through experience. I was once a high-performing IC who kept going for more until I came close to burnout myself. Sharing that story with my reports who are in a similar situation helps build trust and gain credibility.
Frequently people are praised for doing ten things at once and they keep doing it because they want that praise. While it is often about a personal problem, it can also indicate that something is wrong with the company’s culture. Too often I hear, “This is the only way I can keep my job, and if I don’t do ten things at the same time, people will think I am not doing enough.”
Still, sometimes this problem is rooted in a very personal matter and a manifestation of an inner impulse that dictates them not to stop working. In that case, don’t pretend to be a therapist, but nevertheless try to understand if something work-related makes them feel that way.
- Even high performers shouldn’t be left on their own to manage their work. There are always ten times more things to do in any fast-growing tech organization than there is time to do them. Leadership must define priorities clearly and not leave it to high performers to overburden themselves with all of it.
- Create an atmosphere where people will feel safe to say no to things that are not priorities or require an effort beyond reasonable. We are all placed in a broader societal context where the imperative of unconditional success makes it easy for people to burn out. This particularly applies to high performers who push themselves to the limit and beyond if not provided with direction and support.
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