Stop Performance Punishing: 7 Ways To Avoid Demotivating Your Best Employees


Some managers encourage good performance but punish their good performers. They don’t do this intentionally. But, whether deliberate or not, the effect is no different. Could you be such a manager?

What’s Performance Punishing?

Performance Punishing occurs when the employee who performs very well is “rewarded” with more demanding work. But we overlook the possible negative consequences.

Because they do such a good job, you load them with more and more work. Because they set high standards for themselves at work, you trust them to always produce exceptional work. And they do. You can hardly believe your good fortune.

They often work out of hours without extra pay to get the job done. They show great initiative. You always rely on them in a crisis. And they never complain or say “no”. The better their performance the more performance you expect.

Why Managers Punish Performance

Conscientious, trustworthy, reliable and competent employees are hard to find. When we discover them we rejoice.

To satisfy ourselves that they’re as good as they seem, we give them more responsibility. They seem to thrive. We can’t believe our good fortune. So we ask them to look after some tedious work that everyone else avoids. They do it brilliantly. And they create good systems for themselves and others.

We’re not “punishing” them intentionally. We believe that we’re “developing” them. We tell ourselves that we’re giving the employee an opportunity to “develop their skills” and “expand their experience”. Almost imperceptibly, small cracks appear in their performance.

We managers don’t notice any of this. We’re simply delighted with the efforts of our best people. We might even think that they should thank us for the opportunity we’re giving them.

The Downside For The Manager

It’s not unusual to “burn out” our most valuable employees this way. In extreme cases, they leave. If they stay, the quality of some of their work deteriorates.

When that happens we don’t recognise that they’re overloaded and we’re responsible. We tell ourselves that they’re “not quite up to it”. We blame them instead of ourselves. It’s like blaming the camel when we apply the “straw that breaks its back”.

We cease to encourage our best performers. Over time the once outstanding employee become just another worker. But you, the manager, are the big loser. We demand closer attention to procedures rather than systems.

Effect On Other Employees

When we give all or most of our most demanding work to one or two people, other employees can’t develop. We’ll never know how good they could be.

We accept only adequate performance from them and they expect it of themselves. If we make demands on them in a crisis, they don’t respond. They see unusual work as someone else’s work. We don’t expect much from them nor do they from themselves. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Everyone loses. Sorry to be so blunt. But that’s dumb.

Our overloaded and overworked people see their less committed colleagues getting an easy ride. We’ve unwittingly sown the seeds of discontent in the minds of our most valuable people.  We forget the negative consequences. That’s dumb too.

A 7 Step Alternative Approach

It’s a bleak picture. But it does happen. If you want to avoid the effects of Performance Punishing

  • distribute work evenly among employees
  • have clear performance standards for each employee
  • give all employees the opportunity to do more demanding work
  • if possible, structure jobs so that employees must work together to complete them
  • have a job rotation plan using more experienced employees to teach less experienced
  • spread “crisis” or tedious work across groups of employees
  • always seek employee input on improving systems for better performance
  • forget about “playing psychologist”. Take a systems engineering approach


Performance punishing is not uncommon. It’s easy to understand how busy managers fall into it. The worst effects result in loss of your best people. It’s disruptive and risky at the very least. Your best employees leave, emotionally, if not physically.

The alternatives ensure development options for all employees. You’ll have more confidence in all employees and smoother, more productive workflow.

And there’s less pressure on you, as manager. Seems desirable to me.

3 Responses to Stop Performance Punishing: 7 Ways To Avoid Demotivating Your Best Employees
  1. Week in Review – 2010-31
    November 7, 2010 | 1:14 pm

    [...] came across a blog post about Performance Punishing via twitter this week. I’ve seen this at every place I’ve worked! If you highlight [...]

  2. debbie miloian
    March 19, 2011 | 11:41 am

    Thank you for your perspective to an employee. I have been punished for performing well: I have been passed over for a position that I really wanted because of my good performance. Yes, I got a raving performance review, raise and a bonus and I work at the (post office…I am not supposed to tell anyone Per: my boss). I have a bachelors degree in business communication, an associates degree of general studies, more seniority as a supervisor, excellent job performance and experience in the position offered up. I also formally applied for the position before it was “put on hold”. I am on a detail at the district level, through no fault of my own and no fault of my boss (when they want you, they take you…yes, because of the “quality of my work” again). I just found out that he gave “my job” to another less qualified, educated, expereinced and less years.
    I have asked for a review but the word is: No one can “deliver” (sorry for the pun) the the service that I can.
    This is NEVER fair when employers punish their best performers. I could retire in 18 months but I am so upset and humiliated and feeling used that I might just quit. I have to wait until I quit seething though so I can examine my motives more clearly.
    But, thanks again for your article. It does give me another perspective.

  3. Leon
    March 24, 2011 | 7:10 pm

    G’Day Debbie,
    Thanks for you kind comments about the blog I’m glad that you found it useful. I can only comment generally as I’m not sufficiently familiar with all the circumstances. I think that in your position you can either accept that there’s something beyond your performance that’s holding you back, or you can confront your boss about it.
    If you choose the latter course the question I would ask would be along these lines: “Can you please describe the exact performance standards I must reach in order to gain the promotion I believe I’m entitled to?”
    I’d also be very careful to avoid any issues of behaviour. Keep the conversation focussed on performance. And stay calm.

    Hope this helps.


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