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Are Your Top Performers Engaged?

Young business people shaking hands

Top performers are in demand, and often they know it. But when performance is consistently high, how can you identify problems? While disengagement, boredom and overwhelm can be easy to spot and work through with more average performers, when it comes to your top talent, it can come as a complete surprise to discover that they are either searching for a new position elsewhere or handing in their notice.

In the case of a high potential employee, meeting or even exceeding the organisation’s targets and expectations does not necessarily mean they are motivated and engaged. In fact, they may be doing the minimum they need to do to get a stellar reference while they look for a better, more rewarding opportunity elsewhere.

Part of the problem for busy employers and managers is that they often fail to check in with their star performers when it matters. A 12 month employment review, for example, is a complacent approach to a high level performer when looking at whether their personal aspirations are in alignment with what the company can offer them.

US studies have shown that this is one of the key ways in which companies fail their rising stars. Generally speaking, top performers are ambitious and have high self esteem, and are therefore much more likely to have a personal career strategy to get them to where they see themselves in 5, 10 or even more years’ time. Even so, a study conducted by Harvard Business School in 2010 showed that 70% of top performers lack some of the essential attitudes, emotional intelligence and other traits to clearly indicate the likelihood of stamina and future success in their current and future roles, meaning that the traits and abilities managers invest in them may at times be wishful thinking, especially when it is assumed that high potential employees will want, and be suitable for, management roles in the future.

While top performers have higher expectations of themselves and their performance than most people, they also tend to have higher expectations of the companies they work for, and want to know that they can change direction, expand upon their role, take on new challenges and be given projects they can take the credit for as part of their longer term plan.

It would be easy to make the assumption that it is therefore the responsibility of the company to keep their top talent consistently engaged and continually provide them with things to do that will broaden their horizons and keep them interested.

In reality however, it is more accurate to look at the relationship as one of equal responsibility. While most employees are used to the traditional dynamic in which their managers give them tasks to do and let them know what their expectations are of the results, top performers tend to have an understanding of the extra value they bring to an organisation in terms of time, money and energy, borne out by experience and in many cases, figures. For this reason they often prefer to be self directed where possible, to showcase their abilities and build their skills and knowledge for a bright future.

The relationship between business leaders and their employees has changed rapidly, especially since the recession. More and more, managers and bosses are taking on the role of coaches, and a great leader will generally spot the signs when an employee has a special talent that could be developed further.

The 2010 Harvard Business School study on engaging top performers goes on to state:

‘Our research shows that [top performers] confidence in their managers—and in their firms’ strategic capabilities—is one of the strongest factors in top employees’ engagement. An organisation that goes “radio silent” with respect to its strategy—or, even worse, explicitly or implicitly signals a strategy freeze in the midst of economic uncertainty—runs the risk of disengaging its rising stars just when they are needed most.’

Essentially, one of the keys to keeping your top performers engaged seems to be above all, honesty. Leaders need to have a very clear sense of their organisation’s values, goals and identity in order to know how to motivate staff to work in alignment with them.

Meanwhile, top performers also need to be honest with the companies they work for about their long term strategy and goals both in the role they currently occupy and in the roles they see themselves in the future. When both the company and the employee are in accord about their shared values and vision, motivation to outperform their competitors and create a strong sense of team work becomes much easier.


If you want to discuss how to engage your top performers then contact us today.

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Managing Toxic Relationships at Work

Toxic relationship

Most people will, unfortunately, have found themselves working in an environment with a toxic boss at some stage of their career. Just like any other toxic relationship, the effects can be slow and insidious, and if the person on the receiving end of the ill treatment has low self-esteem already, they may end up staying in a role that is causing them daily stress, illness and anxiety for years.

These relationships can in fact, be so damaging that they can cause serious physical health problems for the victim as well as deep depression, anxiety and hopelessness. It is no secret, in recent years, that as well as the usual negative aspects of A-type personalities in business and leadership, there is also a fairly high likelihood you will come across one of the Cluster B Personality Disorders in a management or leadership role – with narcissists and antisocial personalities tending to inhabit these roles more often than we like to imagine.

Here are three of the most common characteristics and behaviours of a toxic working relationship:

1) Divide and conquer
One of the classic tactics of a ruthless boss or manager is divide and conquer. A toxic or personality disordered individual will not think twice about trying to create disagreements between groups of colleagues, often in order to completely take the focus off their incompetence or faulty decision making.

2) Outright bullying
Sometimes just one person is singled out for obvious bullying in the form of putdowns, admonishments and sarcasm in front of large groups of people. Sadly, in many cases the colleagues of the victim may be so relieved it isn’t them on the receiving end of the abusive behaviour that they will happily go along with their boss in laughing along or dishing out the ill treatment, especially if they feel their place in the boss’s inner circle will make their job safer.

3) Unfair criticism and impossible demands
High achievers and those with codependent tendencies are often very much at risk of being subjected to perfectionist criticism and nit-picking, along with being given ridiculously high workloads that only increase each time the person on the receiving end manages to battle their way to the end. This is one way that a toxic abuser in a management position can essentially use a person’s low self-esteem and people pleasing tendencies against them like a weapon, sometimes giving the victim double the workload of their colleagues. Essentially, this has shades of the playground bully forcing his or her victim to do their homework for them.

These are a few of the more extreme example of this type of working relationship, but of course there are many more subtle forms of bullying, coercion and singling out that can occur in a much more covert manner. So, what can be done to help transform the dynamic of these potentially harmful relationships?

Perhaps the answer is that it begins with the person experiencing the bullying. People who have had criticism or abuse growing up may be more likely to have never developed the self-worth or resources to see this behaviour for what it is and protect themselves against it, and are therefore more likely to blame themselves or make excuses for the perpetrator. Having the added worry of what would happen if they lost their job creates an added bind when it comes to taking steps to stop the behaviour.

However, change must come from within because in most cases, toxic bosses who score highly for narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies may not be willing or able to fundamentally change the behaviour that has helped them ruthlessly climb the ladder. Here are a few strategic steps that can be taken:

• Getting help in the form of counselling, talking to a trusted colleague or even reading up on employment law can help with getting some perspective on how unacceptable the behaviour is.
• Taking an honest look at whether it is worth staying in the job at all is also an important stage in shifting the focus from the toxic boss to the self.
• Recognising that bullying can only take place when the other person allows it to happen is a valuable process on the road to transformation, and examining whether childhood experiences or relationship patterns could be at the root of allowing it to continue.
• A good tip for the victim is to keep a diary of every incident that occurs, not only in case the decision to take legal action is pursued, but also to examine whether there are any cases in which the bullying could be handled differently in future. There are always situations in which we look back and feel annoyed with ourselves that we didn’t stand up for ourselves more or maintain stronger boundaries. This way it is possible for the person on the receiving end to look at how they have been responding, as well as the behaviour of their boss or manager.
• The next step is to start setting boundaries – after all, a bully can only thrive in an environment where others respond to them through fear-based interactions.

Once the balance of power starts to shift, it is likely that the behaviour of the toxic boss will either get better or even more extreme as they battle for dominance. If the former occurs, continuing self-work and mindset changes towards greater self-esteem will help to keep the dynamic in a state of improvement. If the latter occurs, leaving the working relationship and where appropriate, potentially considering legal action, may be the only safe option.