Have you ever noticed that being good at your job can feel like winning a pie-eating contest where the prize for winning is more pie?
Humans are maximizers by default: when we see something that works, we tend to go all-in on that strategy to get as much value as possible out of it. It feels reasonable to do the successful thing again, so we'll pull the lever that got us a win for as long as it continues to win.
As managers and leaders, we have the same tendency: if we have an outstanding performer, our instinct is to give them more work because they did a great job on previous tasks. But this comes with significant risk.
In work as in life, we have to maintain a healthy balance between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’. Without moderation, even the best things go wrong: overwater a plant and it dies; eat only your favorite food and you'll get sick of it; even drinking too much water can be harmful.
The phrase ‘everything in moderation’ holds painfully true. And because of the power dynamics at play in manager-employee relationships, it's on us as leaders to avoid pushing our best employees too hard. Here I’m going to outline the risks of punishing our top performers, before sharing some practical steps we can follow to make sure we’re not accidentally punishing folks with more pie.
What we risk when we overburden our best employees
It's tempting to go after short-term productivity gains by routing all important projects to our most outstanding team members, but the long-term risks far outweigh the benefits:
1. Too much work leads to crushing context-switching costs
We've all had days where we felt terribly busy all day but didn't actually get anything done. Context-switching costs are a likely culprit in those situations. Gerald Weinberg estimates that we lose 20% of our time to context switching for each additional task we try to perform in parallel.
Stacking more tasks on our high performers risks burning a huge portion of their time on context switching overhead, making them less productive. This is a counterintuitive outcome that defeats the original intention (get more done faster) and leads to frustration and – eventually – burnout for the person we've overloaded.
2. Burnout sneaks up fast
According to Sarah Drasner, ‘Burnout usually isn’t due to overworking; it’s due to too much of our work being out of alignment with our own goals and values.’
People want to feel valued, useful, and challenged in a way that moves them toward their goals. When someone on our teams is performing well and we give them praise, we signal that the work they did is valuable and useful. However, if we're not regularly checking in with the team to make sure the work meets their goals and feels appropriately challenging, we risk burning them out by saddling them with work that's out of alignment with where they want to grow.
3. We reward behavior that undermines team and company health
When we single out and overload high-performing individuals, we're feeding into the myth of the '10× developer'. Giving one person on the team that kind of attention isolates them and positions them as a bottleneck in the team. They take on a disproportionate amount of work, and that can lead to a disproportionate amount of ownership.
This type of bottleneck creates the most dangerous kind of knowledge silo: one that can only survive a single person leaving the team.
4. We fall into the feedback loop trap
If the only way an employee receives positive feedback is by taking on more work, we set up a morale trap that can destroy not just the employee's wellbeing, but the entire team's:
- A team member who gets positive attention for doing work will be incentivized to take on more work.
- By taking on more work, they risk becoming overloaded and overwhelmed. As they become overwhelmed, their work will slip because they've overcommitted.
- The work slipping causes the team member to feel guilty. They blame themselves for not doing enough and for letting the team down.
- The guilt and frustration leads to low morale and – eventually – quitting.
For the employee that gets caught in this trap, there can be negative effects that outlast the job.
For the manager that realizes they've driven one of their top performers to hand in their resignation, there's shame and guilt that negatively affects their ability to lead the remaining team members.
For the team that watches this happen to their high-performing teammate, the signal becomes clear: don't do too well or you'll be sacrificed to the meat grinder.
5. Business outcomes are negatively impacted
Our responsibility as leaders and managers is to protect all of our employees. First and foremost, we're obligated to do this because it's the right thing to do. However, if we need to tie the reasoning to business outcomes, punishing our top performers comes with significant business risks:
- Replacing an employee costs up to twice their salary.
- High attrition prevents teams from delivering. Existing employees lose time to interviewing and training, and new employees are less productive for about eight months as they ramp up.
- Low trust and low morale decrease productivity – and high turnover is one of the biggest causes of declining productivity and morale (this is another negative feedback loop that can be catastrophic for institutional knowledge and shipping velocity).
How to avoid punishing our best employees
With these risks in mind, managers and leaders should have ‘nurture, grow, and retain employees’ as a primary measurement of company health. There are a few practical steps we can take to get there:
1. Recognize that our default behavior causes this problem
The reward centers in our brains and our institutions will tell you (the manager) to assign more work to this person because they deliver, and it will tell them (the employee) to take on more work because they get recognition and praise for doing it. This is a trap.
Our first step toward avoiding the ‘more pie’ problem is recognizing that our default modes are what create this problem in the first place. We have to be willing to accept that our behavior is contributing to the problem – and acknowledge that if we want it to change, we need to make the changes ourselves.
2. Be mindful of context-switching costs and total commitments
Because we know that multitasking has a 20% productivity cost for each additional task, the single most beneficial thing a manager can do for team productivity is keep them focused and reduce demands on their attention.
Factor in not just projects, but standing commitments and other factors (including non-work factors) that are putting strain on your employees. How often do they get pulled into other chats around the company? How many systems are they maintaining in addition to their new work?
If we pay attention to the overall workload and actively block against competing priorities, we keep our top performers more focused, more productive, and less likely to burn out.
3. Build redundancy and vacation tolerance into the plan
Every employee in the company should be able to take a two-week vacation without interruption and without anyone being blocked until they return. Design teams and projects with this kind of coverage in mind.
If you find yourself loading up multiple mission-critical projects onto a single teammate, reevaluate. Help your top performers become leaders and mentors for the rest of the team instead of burying them under individual tasks. The cohesion and capability of the whole team will improve, and you'll find less need to add more to your top performers' plates.
4. Encourage and reward boundaries
People want to know that they're doing good work, and if the only way to get positive feedback is to take on more tasks, people will do that – even if they know it's unsustainable.
Regularly check in on your employees' workload and praise those who set appropriate boundaries against overloading themselves and only take on a healthy amount of work. Take things off of people's plates when they're overloaded, and put the right gates in place to prevent extra tasks from sneaking into the to-do list. Additionally, work on creating enough safety within the team to give them the confidence to say no.
5. Hold yourself accountable for top performers taking time off
If an employee is worried that they'll ‘let the team down’ or ‘leave people blocked’ by taking time off, step in to ensure they take time off and fully disconnect while on vacation. Work to socialize knowledge if necessary, and do the coaching to remind them that making sure the team can function without them is an important part of keeping the team healthy.
Managers should be held accountable for keeping their teams at a healthy level of commitment, which includes a healthy level of distance. Everyone on your team should schedule regular time off, including a longer holiday (ideally around two weeks) to fully disconnect and ensure teams aren't bottlenecked on a single individual.
Being a top performer shouldn't be punished.
For us to be effective leaders, careful moderation is critical for not burning out our best people. People want to feel valued, useful, and challenged; giving someone additional responsibility can accomplish that, but we also need to make sure we're not undermining their ability to be effective by stacking too many things on their shoulders.
If we're intentional about it, we can build highly productive (and healthy) teams where everyone becomes a top performer, and we can create new challenges for our top performers without putting them into a meat grinder that punishes them for being productive.