6 Mistakes in Managing High Performers

Jun 01, 2021

The mere presence of talent doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, the presence of extraordinary, unprecedented talent doesn’t even guarantee success. If it did, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen would have won titles with Doug Collins as their coach, and Shaq and Kobe would have won under Del Harris and Kurt Rambis. They didn’t.

They won under Phil Jackson.

They achieved their greatest level of success under the guidance of their greatest manager.

The Headache of High Performers

Where Jackson surpassed his peers was not in his mastery of X’s and O’s—though the triangle offense is a thing of beauty. No, where he was truly exceptional was in his ability to manage high performers.

High performers come in all shapes and sizes. They all have their own quirks and eccentricities, and there is no “one size fits all” model for managing them. They do, however, tend to have a few things in common, things that you must understand in order to lead and manage them well. British explorer and Mount Everest climber George Mallory identified three core characteristics of any high performer:

  • Inborn Initiative—They are drawn to complete things, to “win.”
  • Positive Perseverance—They are not easily swayed, distracted, or stymied.
  • Superb Skill—They have exceptional abilities in at least one area, and can handle complex tasks and learn quickly.

While your organization may not be home to any elite athletes with multi-million dollar contracts, it should have some high performers.

If you want to be an innovative company, you need innovative people. If you want a flexible company, you need flexible people. If you want a high-performing company, you need high performers.

In theory, high performers are great for the business, but in practice, the benefits can be lost amidst the stress, headaches, and complications. In short, high performers aren’t easy to manage and may require more preparation and care to lead them well.

With that in mind, here are a few mistakes to avoid when leading the high performers in your organization.

Mistake #1:  “High performers need more than busy work.”

High performers are adrenaline junkies, and problem solving is their thrill of choice. That’s when you see their best effort. Stick them with busy work and you’re going to drain their internal battery down to a trickle of self-motivation. You won’t get their best effort.

Mistake #2:  “High performers often struggle with delegation.”

U.S. Senator and university president James Boren once said, “When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate.” That’s the common stereotype we have of the concept of delegating: it’s a way to get out of work.

But true delegation is not a way to get out of work. Rather, it’s a common-sense strategy to maximize your effectiveness. There are two particular pitfalls in the realm of delegation, and the pitfalls are only magnified when it comes to high performers: “No Delegation” and “Dumping” instead of delegating.

Mistake #3:  “High performers must not be micro-managed.”

The more attached you are to the job or the organization, the more you will want to micro-manage. You hang onto too much control, you give too much instruction, and you want too much information. You give a high performer a project and stay right beside them every step of the way—offering suggestions and critiques. Imagine the infamous Bill Lumbergh from the movie Office Space, and you’ve got your classic micromanager.

Jim Collins said, “The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake. The best people don’t need to be over-managed. Guided, taught, led—yes.  But not tightly managed.”

Mistake #4:  “High performers don’t need complete autonomy.”

Great management includes knowing when to take charge and when to let go. It is not always sitting back and staying out of the way.

Let’s face it, high performers don’t ask too many questions. That’s what makes them great—their inborn initiative. They’re driven to excel and to solve the problem. They won’t be the employees coming back every ten minutes and asking for your opinion. They won’t be the kids raising their hands for permission to go to the bathroom. They just go.

But sometimes they should ask questions. That’s life; no one knows everything.  Sometimes problems will arise that are beyond their expertise.

Mistake #5:  “High performers need feedback, even if they resist it.”  

High performers, especially those with past success, rarely seek out feedback. They don’t ask questions because they want to solve the problem themselves. They don’t ask for feedback for the same reason.

Managers can compound this problem. We see that they’re working hard, so we don’t tell them anything. They’re confident. They’re tough. They’ll be fine.

Truth is, they’ll only be fine if you give them feedback. As this Harvard Business Review article points out, “Giving your stars good feedback is essential to keeping them engaged, focused, and motivated.”

Likewise, Kenneth Blanchard says, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” And that breakfast has two food groups: specific feedback and strategic feedback.

  • Specific Feedback:  The more specific the feedback is, the better. One-size-fits-all feedback doesn’t work.  Specificity is the fuel of lasting change.
  • Strategic Feedback:  Webster defines strategic as something which has “great importance within an integrated whole or to a planned effect.”

Of course, feedback isn’t always great fun, particularly with your high performers. But it is crucial.

Mistake #6: “High performers can take the organization hostage.”

You depend on your high performers so much that you are entirely reliant on their performance. What they say goes. And they can evolve into high maintenance prima donnas, nightmares to work with. As the old saying goes, “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”

You see this a lot in sports. Players start to think they’re bigger than the team. Everything revolves around the high performer.

You Need Them, They Need You

You want high performers. You want your organization to succeed, and they are an indispensable component to that success. Don’t shy away from high performers because of the accompanying challenges. Embrace the challenge.

They also need you. They need to be led, managed, and taught. Their innate skill can only get them so far. To reach their potential, they need thoughtful and challenging managers. Lean in and lead.

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