Employee Retention: Is There a Darkside to Teamwork That’s Causing You to Lose Top Performers?

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Hiring, developing, and retaining top performers is a goal of most business leaders and HR teams. Top performers can accelerate your progress to reaching key results and have the potential to coach and develop others.  Unfortunately, they are the quickest to leave for other opportunities – especially because of a negative work environment. Creating a positive work experience with the right blend of supervision, training, feedback, succession planning, compensation, recognition, and appreciation is critical to retaining top talent. But these latter two characteristics – recognition and appreciation – are not completely under the control of a company’s leaders. Could it be that top performers flee because they are not valued by their colleagues – more than their immediate supervisors?

Do High Performers Reduce Opportunities?

Directly or indirectly, we compare our inputs and outputs at work to those of our colleagues. This can be motivating, “Look what I can achieve if I put in the time and effort!” or, “I work with an outstanding team!” The accuracy, however, of these calculations usually falls far short as we routinely overestimate our own contributions, underestimate our shortcomings, and inaccurately assess the contributions of our peers and supervisors.

One result of these inaccurate comparisons is the perception that top performers reduce opportunity for others. Indeed, researchers discovered that when top performers believed to be a threat to the success of lower performing team members, they will be given the cold shoulder, be undermined, criticized, and isolated from the team. However, and not surprisingly, research reveals that when top performers are believed to improve the success of the team, they are liked by their coworkers.

One of the most surprising research findings is a paradox: Teams with higher levels of cooperation and who spent more time working together to accomplish tasks were more likely to exclude top performers.  That’s because the top performers were seen as consuming valuable group resources and jeopardizing the success of the group as a whole. Everything would be fine if top performers were not numb to this dynamic, but they are not; instead, they are keenly aware that they are on their own.

How Can You Retain Top Performers in a Cooperative Team-Driven Environment?

While providing competitive compensation, opportunities for growth, and challenging work are all traditional valuable resources in the battle to retain top performers , leaders may have overlooked the importance of coworkers and teams in the retention equation.  Even if leadership provides exceptional support and appreciation, top performers will still leave if coworkers create an environment of indifference – or even hostility.

What seems apparent is that we do not fully understand the potential ‘dark side’ of positive values such as teamwork and cooperation.  Collaboration, compromise, and support are all part of teamwork – but may or may not be aligned with your company’s ability to become best-in-class and retain the best performers in your industry.  Teamwork is often viewed as a source of motivation – but could it sometimes mean compromising on achievement?

The Objective

The goal is to create a cooperative team that celebrates and supports the success of everyone, including top performers – and the key to achieving this objective is having the right culture.

Culture is an organization’s shared beliefs about success and how it is achieved. When your teams intensely believe in a shared goal, they are more likely to value the contributions of top performers and build a sense of shared belonging that encompasses everyone. Setting clear expectations for how working as a team helps achieve your goals can also build strong bonds across all levels of performance, elevating everyone’s performance and opportunities.

Hiring the right people is the first step toward building this culture. By hiring for both individual performance, and fit with your culture and its shared definition of success, you can build teams that perform and celebrate everyone’s success. Using tools such as assessments and structured interviews can help you identify candidates who share your goals and values, and also have the skills and qualities needed to perform. Assessments also provide information on the strengths and opportunities of high potential candidates, allowing you to know how they might respond to key challenges a new employee faces, like building trust and relationships with others.  This will allow you to more effectively coach and support top talent in ways that create perceptions of valued contribution instead of threat.

Next Steps

In sum, a critical part of the retention equation for top performers is cultivating strong positive coworker and team relationships – which could be a cost-effective solution for retention.  While it might be tempting to address relationships and team processes directly, starting with a culture-first approach is more likely to produce stronger and more stable results.

Struggling to understand what your organization’s culture is and where it should be (our CultureMap™ can help!)?  Could your values have a dark side you haven’t considered?  Check out our What is Culture? whitepaper to learn more about the layers of culture and how they influence your path to best-in-class.

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Campbell, E., Chuang, A., Liao, H., Zhou, J., & Dong, Y. (2017) Hot Shots and Cool Reception? An Expanded View of Social Consequences for High Performers, Journal of Applied Psychology (5)102, 845–866.

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