Jill Geisler: 8 proactive ways to keep your top performers engaged 

January 29, 2024 2:19 pm

Here’s to the best performers on your team. Their high standards, reliability, creativity and problem-solving skills are a joy to behold. They’re your self-starters, your pacesetters, your go-to people — the ones who’d leave a big hole in the operation if you lost them. 

And you surely don’t want to lose them. That’s why managers need to make sure their top performers are engaged. Following are eight proactive steps you can take to keep both their performance and their morale high. 

1 Don’t assume they know how good they are — or why. Managers sometimes think outstanding staffers are fully aware of their gifts. Maybe those folks win awards or surpass performance metrics. Perhaps they are written up in in-house publications or the trade press as success stories. How could such employees lack confidence in themselves? In truth, high performers are susceptible to insecurity and imposter syndrome. They may worry that their achievements are the product of luck, or the right connections or that if they don’t continuously push themselves, they’ll lose their reputations or ranks.

That’s why it’s so important for supervisors to reinforce their value with specific feedback. Don’t just nickname them Superstar or GOAT [Greatest of All Time] and think that covers it. Spend time with them describing the things they do so well and the impact they make. They need to hear it from people they respect.

2 Don’t leave them on autopilot. Forget the old bromide “Hire great people and get out of their way.” I’m sure whoever coined that phrase thought they were empowering people. But taken literally, it can mean neglecting people, too. Your role is to stay connected, not as a micromanager, but as a cheerleader and as someone who is always on the alert to remove any obstacles to their good work. You’re the person who can cut through red tape or interdepartmental friction. You can be an essential advocate, budget wrangler and brainstorming partner.

3 Make no assumptions about their ambitions; investigate instead. Some high performers aspire to be promoted; others are content in their current roles. Some front-line stars want to become managers; others would rather walk over broken glass than supervise others. Some long for stretch assignments and get bored if they’re in the same routine; others love sticking with what they know best. It’s your job to understand your people so you can keep them as comfortable or challenged as they’d like.

4 Don’t penalize them for their competence. A sad reality of too many workplaces is that high performers are rewarded with — more work! That’s a management failure, often caused by supervisors who’d rather avoid having tough conversations with lower performers or who fail to provide training to those who need it. It’s easier to turn to those team members who consistently deliver without complaining.

But know this: More and more these days, I’m hearing them complain. Your top performers, whether staff or managers, know when you’re using them as a shortcut or a workaround. You lose their respect when you do it. And if you overburden good folks due to your unwillingness to bring others up to speed, they just may leave.

One more alert: There’s a category of staffers I call Swiss Army Knife Employees. These are the folks who are multi-talented and whose skills are spread over many roles. If you ever find yourself thinking that if a particular worker left, you’d have to hire two people as replacements, you know who I’m talking about. Be very careful not to take such employees for granted. And don’t deny them promotions they want and deserve simply because they’d be too hard to replace.

5 Review how you reward them. If your people are truly stars, does their compensation adequately reflect that? For example, if they joined your team at a time wages were depressed in a bad economy, do they deserve a bump up? If they’re earning less than you know they deserve but your budget is tight, are there other ways to reward them (such as with specialized trainings, plum assignments, perks, privileges, job swaps or fellowships)? Only you know the range of options your organization can provide and how rewarding they would be for your high achiever.

6 Keep them in the loop. This benefit costs you nothing while paying great dividends. Ask for their input on decisions that you know they care about. Give them a “heads up” about organizational news or upcoming changes. When managers go out of their way to keep staffers informed, it tells them that they matter.

7 Don’t assume they are perfect. Here’s the reality check part of this column: High performers aren’t necessarily flawless. (Who is?) Maybe they sometimes dominate meetings. Maybe they overthink things and worry needlessly. Maybe they ask not to work with rookies or folks who aren’t as skilled as they are.

While you want to keep stars happy, you can’t do it at the expense of their teammates. That’s why the best leaders provide a healthy diet of feedback, including occasional difficult conversations. Learn to say something like, “You know I think the world of you, and we’ve talked about the many things you do so well. That’s why I owe it to you to let you you’re doing something that’s undercutting your good work.” Then describe the behavior, its impact and what must change — with clarity and in the spirit of support.

8 When you can’t fulfill their dreams, love them enough to let them go. This one is painful. We hate losing good people. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, they tell us they’ve identified something bigger and better out there. The best managers do several things in response. First, they make certain the employee knows how much they are valued and how they will explore all possible options to get them to stay. Second, they will help the employee objectively evaluate that new opportunity to make sure it’s all it seems to be. Then, if all signs say that leaving is the best option, they announce the star’s new adventure and send them off with a celebration.

Your A player will always remember that you handled their departure with grace. And that’s wise. Because you just might be working for that person one day. 


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