You may think your top-performing employees don’t need extra encouragement. After all, they’re already driven, productive and well-compensated, right? Why fix something that’s not broken?

That’s a risky mindset that may very well backfire on you.

High-performing employees are often the least engaged employees and more likely to quit than their lower-performing peers, according to a report by consulting firm Leadership IQ.

The reasons for this are plenty:

  • Managers typically spend less time and energy on motivating their high performers than they do low and middle performers.
  • They don’t challenge or recognize their high performers enough.
  • They are slow to fix poor performance issues at the workplace (which creates resentment and extra work for high performers).
  • They don’t give high performers enough certainty about the ability to advance in their careers.

“There are ample reasons why this puts organizations at risk. And one of them is the fact that high performers, who thrive on being highly engaged, don’t tend to stick around very long if they aren’t engaged,” concludes Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ.

Moreover, top performers likely won’t produce their best work if they’re unfulfilled or feeling undervalued. Here are five strategies for bringing out the best in your prized employees.

1. Prevent boredom

Lack of challenge is one of the main reasons talented employees lose interest in their jobs and quit. Rather than waiting to discover they’re bored, take proactive steps to keep them excited about their work.

First, figure out when your high performers are bored. Their performance may be slipping recently, because they’re feeling uninspired about work. Their daily work routine may not have changed much recently, meaning they’re doing the same thing over and over again without a new challenge to excite them. The easiest way to find out if someone is bored, of course, is to ask them directly, writes management blogger Michael Lopp on Rands in Repose.

“Even if you don’t have a gut feeling, it’s a good question to randomly ask your team,” Lopp writes. “When I ask, I look you straight in the eyes and if you can’t stare me in the face and answer, I’m going to keep digging until you look me in the eye. Remember, the goal here is to discover boredom before they know it, and the act of a simple question might be just the mental impetus they need to see the early signs in themselves.”

Once you know a high performer is bored, you can take steps to fix the problem. Make sure the tasks you give your top performers keep expanding their knowledge and skill set and encourage them to pursue projects they care about, advises Travis Bradberry, president of leadership consultancy TalentSmart. Letting employees have some flexibility to spend their time on projects of their choice helps prevent on-the-job boredom and keeps them engaged with their work. Give them “stretch assignments” that push their skills and knowledge base. This allows high performers to break out of their comfort zone and pursue different types of tasks and roles that may challenge them and keep them happy.

Let the motivated accountant brainstorm ways to bring in new clients. Let the assembly worker propose efficiencies or new products. Many high performers crave the chance to be both creative and strategic beyond their standard roles.

And give those employees continual feedback on their performance—something high-performing workers thrive on. “The most talented employees seek to improve everything they touch,” writes Bradberry. “If you take away their ability to change and improve things because you’re only comfortable with the status quo, this makes them hate their jobs.”

2. Build career paths

Your company, like many small businesses, may struggle with offering upward mobility. Talented employees may not feel they have the career advancement opportunities available to them at larger companies.

But small businesses can—and should—design growth opportunities. In fact, small companies may have an advantage when it comes to providing career growth because they are more nimble than large firms and can more easily create new positions centered around the needs or goals of specific employees.

It’s important for small companies to actively develop career paths and communicate those advancement opportunities to their best employees—who may feel they have to jump ship to “move up” in their careers, writes HR professional Kazim Ladimeji on Recruiter.com.

That might include creating higher positions at the company around the specific skills, talents and interests of top performers. But it can also mean offering job-specific training and career development that allows them to think about and evolve their careers. The important thing: Making top performers feel like the company is invested in their future so that they don’t have to leave to grow.

“Don’t just string employees along with promises of development: set out a clear vision, and then make it a concrete reality,” Ladimeji adds.

3. Pay them better

Money talks. And high-performing employees expect more of it.

Research by SAP SuccessFactors and Oxford Economics found that top performers care “significantly more” about being compensated for their performance than lesser-performing colleagues, writes SAP workplace futurist Karie Willyerd in Harvard Business Review. In fact, competitive compensation is the top thing employees value at work, the research found.

Consider how to give your top performers more compensation, but don’t overlook the potential problems that may spring up if you differentiate by pay too much—such as creating resentment among the employees who don’t regularly get big raises.

“Tenure-based compensation strategies with little differentiation between high and low performers are likely to alienate your high performers the most,” Willyerd writes in Harvard Business Review. “The difference between a 2% raise and a 6% raise, as is common in many compensation strategies, is not significant enough to keep high performers who have more options in the marketplace.”

Willyerd suggests giving top-performing employees larger bonuses as a way to motivate them, rather than focusing solely on annual raises—which may cause more resentment and problems in the workplace.

4. Hold poor performers accountable

Low performers can take a big toll on workplace morale—and especially on the morale of top performers. It’s important to take steps to try to improve the performance of low performers or, in some cases, let them go.

A survey of 1,700 professionals by Eagle Hill Consulting found that low performers are seen as increasing the workload of high performers and, in turn, reducing workplace morale by creating a culture where mediocrity seems acceptable.

To prevent this, Eagle Hill recommends companies take several steps: Identify high performers within the organization and define what high performance entails. Companies can then use those benchmarks to first try to hire the best people, then recognize strong performers and take steps to improve or weed out low performers.

“The most successful organizations are those that drive out the weak links and nurture their top performers,” Melissa Jezior, Eagle Hill president and CEO, tells the Society of Human Resources Management. “Yet, our findings indicate that in some cases, low-performers are destroying an organization’s culture and causing attrition of the talented staff employers should retain.”

5. Recognize the best

Research shows that top performers crave recognition for their good work. They may feel undervalued if nobody gives them credit or seems to notice the extra effort or successes they achieve.

Dave Yarnold, CEO of software developer ServiceMax, got rid of a recognition program solely focused on the sales team and replaced it with a companywide “Top 40 Performers Club” that recognizes the best employees each year and rewards them with incentive trips. The point, Yarnold writes in Entrepreneur, is to publicly thank the employees who achieve great results while giving others something to strive for.

Every department of the company creates its own process for selecting the top performers each year. The selections are then finalized by executive management.

“To see your engineers jumping up, high-fiving and hugging while the entire company cheered them on was amazing,” Yarnold writes, adding: “Giving something tangible to work towards provides further incentive, motivation and fuel to push everyone to attain uncommon and extraordinary results.”

As your business grows, it’s especially important to think about talent management and how to motivate and retain your best employees. Putting such practices in place sooner rather than later should help prevent these people from flocking to your competitors.

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