Talent   //   January 30, 2023

How performance punishment builds resentment among high-achieving employees

Get the latest on how the workplace is changing, delivered to your inbox daily. Sign up for the WorkLife Daily Newsletter here.

It feels good to know that your boss or team regard you as a reliable worker. Knowing that you’ll be the go-to for any urgent or tricky task, or be willing to go the extra mile to ensure deadlines are always met on time, can be good for confidence.

But when does it stop being good, and start encroaching on unhealthy? How many dinners do you watch your underperforming colleague head out to with their friends, while you stay online working late for instance, before it starts to grind your teeth?

That’s performance punishment.

“It’s additional work, additional projects, more expectations than their peers,” said Sundi Wright, HR administrator, diversity programs for the State of Tennessee.

Bosses aren’t doing this on purpose, per se, but consistently asking the same reliable employee for help can lead them to feel overwhelmed, burnt out, or even resent their counterparts who don’t see the same workload. 

And it’s a slow creep, imperceptible at first. Being chosen for an assignment can feel good, especially knowing that your boss can trust you to do it right. “Reward in the brain makes us want to be overachievers,” said Joy VerPlanck, a senior insight strategist at NeuroLeadership Institute. “We collect achievements as little wins throughout the course of our days. It can be further reinforced by leaders or team members who are cognitively overloaded or rely on biases that make it quick to go to certain types of people.”

“The punishment piece comes in when we realize our teammates aren’t doing the same. We’re rewarded, but there is a sense of unfairness.”
Emma Sarro, a researcher at NeuroLeadership Institute.

Because of that quick feeling of reward for being chosen for your abilities over your colleagues, we often overlook the actual red flag that is there. Before you know it, you’re doing so well at your job that you’re swamped with a million tasks. Sure, you’ll get them done, but it could result in you working longer than an eight-hour day. Meanwhile, low-level achievers are able to sign off early. 

“The motivational drive we get when we are asked to do these things at work is why we continue to say yes,” said Emma Sarro, a researcher at NeuroLeadership Institute, who wrote an article with VerPlanck on performance punishment. “The punishment piece comes in when we realize our teammates aren’t doing the same. We’re rewarded, but there is a sense of unfairness.”

The situation isn’t always so black and white either. As Wright points out, a boss might also see potential in an employee and is giving them stretch goals that could lead to a promotion in due time. 

However, it’s all about communication.

“Maybe there is a reason, and that ‘why’ could help the employee feel more fulfilled,” said Wright. But if a conversation isn’t had, then that employee might not understand their boss’ thought process around it.

VerPlanck recommends asking questions like: “am I truly the only one or are you relying on me because of my experience?” and reminding your boss that maybe someone else can have that success as well. It might also mean using language like “I’m glad you came to me, but this could be an opportunity to develop someone else” or “Is there someone you would like me to upskill in the process of taking this on so they can do it next time?”

Wright suggests using “I” statements as well when describing how this sort of performance punishment has impacted you as a worker. That could look like “I feel overwhelmed,” or “I feel like I am doing more than what I should be doing.” This helps avoid pointing blame towards your boss.  

Communication like that isn’t always possible at every office. It depends on the culture. VerPlanck points out that there needs to be a certain level of psychological safety to be able to address this. That’s why the person in the leadership position should also be mindful of over assigning to their best employee. It might be something they don’t even realize they are doing, especially if they work in a fast-paced environment where they just want to get things done.

"It’s a heavy cognitive burden. If it’s not mitigated by the leader, it just continues.”
Joy VerPlanck, a senior insight strategist at NeuroLeadership Institute.

Managers should ask themselves if they are participating in a cognitive bias that leans towards the reliable employee before assigning work. They could also remember what an employee’s outlined duties are and stick to that as closely as possible to avoid them taking on more than the next person.

“The leader can start by being aware of the mental shortcuts they’re taking,” said Sarro. “If you’re aware and can pause, you can mitigate the bias.”

That looks like no longer asking the same person to do the same thing, which could be done by creating different workflows to make it easier to ask someone else.

If that communication isn’t there, the reliable workers, who never say no, could easily end up burnt out or wanting to quit their job, especially if they end up with the same evaluation as their peers who do less. 

“Because there is no time for that worker to reset and balance, they’re operating on grit and playing whack-a-mole to everything that comes at them,” said VerPlanck. “It reduces your ability to get ahead of tasks because of the constant reaction mode. It’s a heavy cognitive burden. If it’s not mitigated by the leader, it just continues.”