success penalty - soccer goal

At a recent Florida Aviation Business Association (FABA) conference, a retention-related topic called the “success penalty” arose. Admittedly, I’d never heard that phrase, but once one of the panelists began describing it, I was intrigued.

Have you ever heard of the “success penalty?”

The idea is that, over time, employees who are competent and super-productive can be “penalized” for doing their jobs as well as they do.

It often becomes the status quo to expect more and more from them. And, as they gain a reputation for being over-achievers, their aviation leader or co-workers may start to treat them differently.


Success Penalty: The High Performers’ Stigma

Here in business aviation, professionals tend to work in smaller departments. Thus, the most productive team members often get extra work. After all, if you know that Richard always “knocks it out of the park” and makes you (the boss) look great, why would you trust anyone else with something that must get done?

So, not only do these overachievers get assigned the high-powered tasks they might enjoy working on, but they’re often given more mundane jobs that don’t bring the same level of satisfaction, but need to get done.

And, when these star performers on our team are relied upon to handle so much of what we do, they can sometimes feel some negative pressure when they attempt to schedule some well-deserved time off. The problem is, as the “go-to” people on the team, they can tend to make themselves indispensable.

What’s more, productive employees who are working to prove their value may find it harder to get promoted. Their bosses may consciously, or unconsciously, fear how difficult it would be to replace them, and deem it more valuable to the team to keep them in their current roles.

And that’s not all. Oftentimes, being a “go-getter” can become a stigma. It can make these high achievers’ co-workers resent them and try to undermine their good work.

I’m sure we’ve all witnessed instances when a co-worker did his or her job too well, or delivered results way ahead of the deadline. Maybe they were seen to be setting a precedent for everyone to perform at that level, making other team members look like they’re not as committed or competent. As a result, those faster-paced employees—instead of being admired as stars—often get scorned.

In some respects, it can be chalked up to human nature. It’s easy to expect more from employees who continually over-deliver. Then we sometimes end up not expecting as much from less productive ones.

So, as aviation leaders with a mission to fulfill, who would we naturally turn to when the stakes are high?


Psychological Findings

After returning from the FABA conference, I dug into the topic of success penalties. I soon discovered a study by the American Psychological Association. In it, they explained “success penalty” behaviors within our personal and professional relationships.

The takeaway was that people who over-perform often suffer the burden of being relied on too much by their colleagues, families and friends.

The study presented findings about a so-called “subject employee.” For the sake of personalizing it, they called her “Jane.” When, at work, Jane demonstrated greater competence than a lot of her co-workers. Notably, the people in the study group began expecting much more of Jane’s job performance. She became the de facto “go-to” person for just about anything that needed to get done.

And what happens then? We use her up and there is nothing left in her tank to devote to the most important people in her life:  her spouse, partner, child, parent and/or friends.


Extra Effort Deserves a Reward

Christy Zhou Koval, a Ph.D student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, was the lead author of the study. With her results, Koval said it makes sense to rely more on competent people. But she also pointed out that it’s important for co-workers and leaders to recognize how much stress they’re creating on these high performers by doing so.

In the workplace, there has to be a reward quotient, she says. Koval recommends rewarding responsible employees, rather than piling more expectations on them. “If someone is doing more than his [or her] fair share, compensate him [or her] for it,” she said. “If not, he [or she] may leave and seek recognition elsewhere.”

The upshot of this topic is that, as managers, we need to do as Elizabeth Campbell of the University of Minnesota (who has done significant work on this issue) advises. She tells us that these “rock stars” who deliver high levels of performance on a regular basis are immensely valuable.

They are often difficult to find, hard to attract and then retain, and costly to replace. So as leaders, we need to stay vigilant, watching for signs of isolation, dissatisfaction and disengagement. Then we need to intervene early, ensuring that our investment in these valued employees pays off.

Attention to these issues is particularly important in workplaces that value cooperation more than competition. By helping employees recognize that the benefits of collaborating with high performers can outweigh their threats, managers can assure that star performers are embraced rather than sabotaged.


Speak Up

And, if you’re one of these “rock stars,” you need to be honestly and openly communicating with your manager—the person who might unknowingly be overburdening you.

Honest communication about your feelings and what you are experiencing is the key to your growth and further opportunities. Negotiate for the work time needed to deliver to (or beyond) expectation, and for the appropriate reward. Silence is one of the most dangerous saboteurs of mutual success.


Your Turn

Have you experienced the success penalty yourself? Are there pros or cons of being a high producer? Does your leader consider “collateral duties” a part of professional development? Are your team members rewarded for their extra work? Is there a plan in place to promote such individuals who take on more and more, if that’s their desire? We’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below.


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