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A Survival Guide for Lonely High Performers

Jan 12, 2015
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By Hui Liao

SMITH BRAIN TRUST -- High performers understand the adage: “It’s lonely at the top.” New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, which I co-authored with colleagues from four other institutions, confirms that outperforming workplace norms can prompt negative social consequences. But we also found the opposite.

The same envious coworkers who undermine high performers also recognize the benefits of associating with people who can raise the reputation of the entire group. A social paradox results. Like a complex costs versus benefits analysis, people simultaneously support and shun their high performing coworkers.

We observed these behaviors in a field study involving 300 stylists in 80 beauty salons in Taiwan. Then we found similar results in a controlled team experiment involving 284 management students in the United States.

Potentially, experiencing some degree of support could create a balancing effect for the targets of antisocial behaviors. But our research suggests that something else happens instead. The mixture of incongruent behaviors might actually prove more detrimental for high performers than steady undermining, perhaps because of the ambivalence and social uncertainty that results.

What are high performers to do? Research shows that one in four expects to work elsewhere within a year. If you fall in this category, you might consider other coping strategies first. Our research suggests at least three guidelines for high performers and their managers who want to keep them from walking out the door.

Build social capital

As a high performer, you start every day with a list of things you want to accomplish. You stay focused and deliver results, even when your peers chat at the water cooler or spend half the morning planning lunch. When you join their conversations, you tend to be direct. If you need help locating a document, you don’t start by asking about someone’s weekend or how the person’s kids are doing in soccer.

Unfortunately, too much efficiency can be off-putting for colleagues with different work styles, who might perceive that you care more about projects than people. So stay mindful of performance differentiation and how it impacts relationships.

As the nature of work grows increasingly collaborative, you must form high-quality bonds with your coworkers and develop social capital to sustain peak performance. One way to do this is by offering more help to your coworkers, showing interest in their success.

Monitor the climate

Workplace climate affects the way people respond to performance differentiation. Because work increasingly occurs in groups, many organizations seek cooperative climates that emphasize mutual interests over self-interests. On the surface this would seem to boost peer appreciation for high performers, who can help the group look good and even earn more money.

The opposite is closer to the truth. Warmer climates can mean cooler treatment for high performers, partly because increased cooperation involves more frequent exchanges, which allows knowledge of individual performance to transmit quickly among members.

Thus, working in close proximity with performers who deviate from the norm can exacerbate social tensions. Consider what would happen on a unionized factory floor to a worker who starts doubling output.

In lower cooperative climates, differentiating oneself might seem more reasonable and less threatening. This does not mean that you can or should avoid cooperation, but you need to consider climate as a factor. If you choose to join a cooperative organization or workgroup, be prepared for the social dynamics and adjust your behaviors accordingly.

Protect your superstars

High performers are the most difficult to retain — and not just because they have more job opportunities elsewhere. Social tension in the workplace can also drive them away.

If you have high achievers on the teams you manage, do not underestimate the harmful effects that performance differentiation can have. You must cultivate and protect positive interactions, especially when setting collective objectives for a workgroup.

When appropriate, consider maintaining distinct goals for individuals rather than emphasizing common interests. And remember, as a manager you can be a source of emotional support for the lonely high performers.

Hui Liao, Ph.D., is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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Liao’s paper, “Hot Shots and Cool Reception? Social Consequences of High Performance at Work,” is under review at the Academy of Management Journal. Co-authors include Elizabeth M. Campbell from the University of Minnesota, Aichia Chuang from National Taiwan University, Jing Zhou from Rice University, and Yuntao Dong from the University of Connecticut.

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