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Five Steps To Retaining High Performers in Your Organization

I’m a big fan of David Burkus – met him years ago through the Marshall Goldsmith MG100 program and Thinkers50, and we’ve stayed in touch since. So, when he writes compelling pieces, I love to share them with my community. Here is a recent post on five steps to keeping high performers. I’ve also taken the liberty to add a few adjectives or additional insights I thought you’d find of value. Enjoy, and as always, I welcome your comments, David Nour 


Here’s an uncomfortable truth about the current world of work: High performers need organizations less than organizations need high performers.

Performance in work has always followed a power law or “Pareto” distribution. Everyone on the team contributes to the victories, but high performers who act as team players make the victory more likely. In one analysis of over 600,000 workers from dozens of different fields, high performers were found to achieve 400 percent more than average workers.

But to unlock those achievements, high performers need to be motivated to perform and motivated to work as a team.

Here are five methods leaders can use to keep high performers motivated and achieving:

1. Share Meaning

A lot of organizations attempt to give meaning to their people by promoting a “mission statement.” But often, these jargon-filled scrawls about creating shareholder value and disrupting industries aren’t very meaningful. While people want to work for a purposeful organization, most people get a sense of meaning from doing work that benefits others. And high performers are no different. So, motivating through meaning requires sharing regular stories and updates about how the work high performers are doing directly benefits others. This could be by connecting them with customers or stakeholders more often or by sharing thank you notes and words of praise from leaders in the organization with the whole team. Anything that helps high performers know their work matters will also help keep them motivated.

2. Build Connections

Specifically, it is to build an authentic connection between high performers and the entire team. Building authentic connection involves more than just making sure everyone knows each other’s names and assigned roles. It means getting to know each other on a deeper, more holistic level. Research suggests that when people build connections via mutual interests outside of work, they are more likely to develop real friendships. And real friendship at work helps everyone become better. Having friends at work makes people more motivated, less likely to quit, and more likely to find solutions to problems faced on the job. In building those connections, smart leaders don’t just force people into mandatory team-building activities. Instead, they create genuine opportunities for self-disclosure—often through unstructured moments like shared meals or structured discussions designed to let people talk about nonwork topics…. which eventually makes them more than just colleagues.

3. Create Safety

As high performers are interacting with you and the rest of the team, everyone should feel psychologically safe to express their ideas, take risks on projects, and speak up when they disagree. Teamwide, psychological safety helps create a learning culture that helps everyone find better ways of working, explore more solutions to potential problems, and give each other feedback that improves performance. For high performers, psychological safety is especially important because they’ll want to know their opinions and ideas are included—but also because we’ll want to remind them not to discount the opinions and ideas of others who may help them find even better methods of performance. Amy Edmondson of HBS has an entire LinkedIn Course on Psychological Safety.

4. Give Autonomy

It has been known for decades that autonomy—having the freedom to determine how to work, where to work, when to work, and more—is a strong driver of intrinsic motivation. So, it shouldn’t surprise any leaders that giving high performers more autonomy will keep them more motivated. But in a knowledge work organization in an ever-changing environment, there’s one other truth that leaders shouldn’t find surprising: high performers probably know better. If they’re more attached to the work being done, they probably have a better idea of how to get it done well than someone who has been in a supervisor role for five to ten years. It’s worth noting that giving autonomy doesn’t mean leaving them out on their own, smart leaders become servant leaders and see their role as helping to remove roadblocks on the path, even when it’s high performers choosing the path.

5. Provide Growth

Providing growth and development opportunities to high performers really means two things:

  1. Fighting for them to get noticed in the organization and giving them the resources or access to training to develop.

  2. Having open and honest conversations with them about their career goals and how you can help support them.

And that second one is quite a bit harder than the first. Open and honest conversation means growth talks beyond the formal review process—because how often can you be truly honest in a conversation that’s heavily documented? It even means knowing about, and still being supportive of, high performers whose growth plans may require leaving your team or organization. Few people still manage to have a career inside one organization. The average length of tenure is getting shorter and shorter, and leaders who recognize that and still stay committed to helping their people grow will be rewarded with people who stay motivated.

What all five of these methods have in common is that they require a mindset shift. Just as organizations need to recognize that high performers don’t need organizations as much as organizations need them, smart leaders recognize that high performers don’t “work for” them. Instead, high performers—and all their people—work with them. Leaders’ core job is to get their people what they need to do their best work. And this servant leadership mentality helps them do their best work ever.

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