WorkZone: Highest performers may not be the most engaged

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It's logical to think the employees of a company that are best at their jobs are also the happiest and most engaged. But a new study suggests the most engaged employees -- the ones who feel motivated and excited by their work -- might actually be a company's worst.

Atlanta-based consulting firm Leadership IQ's research found that, in 42 percent of American companies, the least productive employees reported feeling more engaged at work than their colleagues who were receiving higher work performance ratings from their managers.

That might be because managers are burning out their highest performing employees by making them pick up the slack for lower performers, according to Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ.

"One test is, if it's Friday afternoon and you have a major deadline Monday morning, are you going to go to your high performers or your low performers?" Mr. Murphy said.

"And what if the same happens the next week? Eventually, the same three people are sending the midnight emails and working the weekend to carry the department or the organization."

Mr. Murphy said that, to alter this pattern, managers need to ensure the workload is more evenly distributed. But, he added, it is just as important that managers keep their low performers accountable for the poor quality of their work -- something that he suspects managers find hard to do.

To reach its findings, Leadership IQ examined data collected at more than 200 American companies that kept records of employees' work performance ratings and engagement surveys.

In the remaining 58 percent of companies surveyed, the findings were mixed. In a majority of those cases, the highest performing employees also reported feeling the most engaged.

Organizations whose middle performers reported feeling more engaged than people both above and below them were the rarest in the sample, Mr. Murphy said.

David Lebel, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, said there may be an alternative explanation for why so many high performers are not feeling engaged at work.

When managers tell them repeatedly what a good job they are doing, Mr. Lebel said, they tend to internalize the praise and drop some of the behaviors that are making them successful.

"It's much better to say, here are the specific things you're doing so you can repeat them," Mr. Lebel said.


Michelle Hackman: or at 412-263-1969. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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