Stop Punishing Your Best Performers! Build a Culture of Employee Development

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Chris Ruisi

Punishing your best employees is a condition that exists in far too many companies. I refer to it as simply “performance punishment.” It’s a slow but deadly process that can be found at one time or another in every business--big or small, private or public--where weak managers work. By weak, I mean those who have no “people management” skills, have them but do not know how to properly apply them or simply are afraid to manage.

The condition can occur in two different situations. The first involves a better than average employee, who is recognized as such by his or her superiors and peers but works for a not-so-effective manager. The manager continues to pile on additional work on this individual, knowing that this employee has superior skills as well as a superior work ethic and can handle it--until a certain breaking point is reached. Because this individual is so valuable to the manager, the manager rewards the individual by giving him or her  more work, which in essence precludes the employee from earning or seeking other opportunities for promotion. The manager “claims” that the individual has a bright future with the company, but that he or she just needs to be “a bit more patient.” Eventually, the superior performer realizes that his or her manager is weak and that the only course of action is to seek employment elsewhere (yup, that is the breaking point).

When the employee does offer his or her resignation, the manager is shocked and responds, “I had no idea you were this unhappy. Why didn’t you say something?” The employee is stunned by this comment and remains silent, offering to help in the transition to locating a replacement. The superior employee leaves because he or she no longer trusts the manager. The real victim is the company, which loses a valuable “people-oriented” asset as a result of the weak manager. The equally sad outcome is that if the company does not address the manager’s performance, the same scenario will play out again. As Yogi Berra once said, “This looks like déjà vu all over again.”

The second setting in which “performance punishment” can exist is when the superior performer is literally “carrying” his workload, as well as the workload of a weaker/poor performing teammate. In its early stages, weak managers punish better performers, who already have a full plate of work to do, with additional work that weaker employees either cannot or will not do. The weak manager usually approaches the better employee with requests such as, “I know you’re busy, but can you take care of this.  Blank just doesn’t know how to do it?” Or, “Can you handle this? We are pressed for time, and I know I can depend on you to get this done.” Left with no choice, the better employee accepts the work and gets it done, plus everything else he is working on. How? Maybe he skips lunch or a break or works late several nights to avoid a backlog or both. The manager convinces himself he is a good delegator, while the weaker employee goes home, on time, to spend time with his  family and the better, more productive employee gets punished with the extra work!

The “punishment” continues and even gets worse each time the manager comes back with more work for the better employee because he knows he can count on that person to get it done. Hence, the vicious cycle of performance punishment is in place until the better performer breaks, stops giving the best effort and then quits, resulting in the company becoming a victim. In the meantime, the weaker performer continues his “I can’t do this” excuse and gets to go home on time.

An effective way to deal with “performance punishment” involves the following multistep process:

  1. The first step is prevention. Have a clear picture of the type of person you want to hire. This profile should include not only the skills and experience needed for the incumbent to succeed but a description of the type of person who will fit into the culture of your company. Some of these things are work habits, interpersonal skills and the ability to contribute to a team’s success.
  2. Once hired, make sure you spend enough time training the person in his duties and responsibilities and put in place a process to measure when he becomes proficient in his tasks. Some managers treat training as a burden, as opposed to probably one of the most important tasks a leader should and must perform. This initial training sets the foundation for future performance expectations.
  3. Make sure that all of the members of your team know what they are supposed to do, how to do it (see # 2), the “why” of what they do--i.e. how it fits in to your company’s  operation--and how the performance of their duties impacts the jobs of their teammates.
  4. Create a no-excuse culture within your company by setting expectations for your team members’ job performance and then holding them accountable to meet your expectations.
  5. Establish an employee development culture (EDC) in your business, and live by it. Meet periodically (maybe three to four times per year) one-on-one with your team members and tell them how they are doing. If they are doing well, let them know. If they are not meeting your expectations, tell them that, as well as what they need to do to improve. Ask them for suggestions on how to improve how the work gets done. The EDC meeting is in addition to your normal annual performance review program. In fact, work to make the annual process more effective. Why? You are dealing with performance throughout the year.
  6. Work with your managers to make sure that they are meeting your expectations and are properly implementing this multistep process—EDC--within their own areas of responsibility. In order to get things done through their people, they need to pay attention to how they develop their teams. The leader needs to accept complete responsibility for the development of their managers and help them to see what they need to do to become better leaders. As a leader, you must set the example for them. How? Have EDC meetings with each of them about their performance.

If you follow this multistep process consistently, persistently and systematically, you will not only increase productivity but make great strides to eliminate “performance punishment” from your company.

About the Author(s)

Chris Ruisi is a nationally recognized human resources and executive coach, leadership expert, professional speaker and author, who is challenging business leaders in his book Step Up and Play Big. Drawing on his 35-plus years as a senior-level executive on the corporate front lines, Ruisi helps his clients to discover how to find and use the full measure of their capabilities. To learn more, visit