The ‘Curse Of Competence:’ Why Top Performers Quit Their Jobs

Dear Liz,

I recently left the organization I worked for for ten years.

It was a great place to work for a long time but it got worse the longer I stayed. As you always say, fear replaced trust and it became impossible for me to manage my team.

It took me five months of under-the-radar job hunting to get into my new company.

I’m so much happier in my this job. Thanks for the motivation I needed to make a change!

One of the biggest problems I ran into as a manager in my old company was the phenomenon I call the “top performer problem.”

I managed a team of 12 great employees. Not everybody I hired was a top performer, but I had three or four ultra-high-performing people on my team. My company made it extremely hard for me to do the right thing by those employees.

If somebody on my team (or any other team) did an amazing job one year and their manager wanted to give them a special bonus or a bigger-than-average raise, we practically had to walk over hot coals to get approval for that.

That was the case even when the CEO himself went out of his way to tell the top performer’s manager “Hang onto that employee — he’s a super star!”

How am I supposed to “hang onto” a top performer without money to pay him or her, and without any ability to acknowledge the outstanding employee’s contributions?

I had three amazing employees recruited out of my department and finally I said “Enough.” I need to work for a company that doesn’t just talk about talent, but actually rewards it.

Here are some of the frustrations I dealt with around the issue of managing highly competent people:

1. Our VP would set goals and my team always met them. My outstanding employees sailed far past their goals, but I wasn’t allowed to reward them for that, even with something as simple as more flexibility in their schedule.

If somebody blew past their goals the response from HR was “Their goals were too modest, then.” Really? The goals came from my VP, not from me.

What’s the point of giving someone a goal to hit if their reward for reaching the goal is “Oh well, it must not have been the right goal then.”?

2. When someone on my team made a huge contribution to our company’s bottom line, there was no bonus, no day off, no formal recognition of any kind — even though the senior executives would cheer and high-five one another about the outstanding employee’s achievement.

If it was a win for them, why wasn’t it a win for the employee who did the work?

3. At one point one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, much less supervised (“Cory”) told me that if he couldn’t get access to another VP in the company whose input he needed, he would quit. Cory is not a high-maintenance or emotional person — he was that frustrated.

I conveyed the message to my VP and asked him to intervene with the difficult VP who didn’t want to step off his pedestal to deal with a “mere” rank-and-file employee. My VP wouldn’t do it.

He never said “I won’t do it” but he said “The issue is that talking with Cory will be intimidating to my fellow VP, because Cory is a subject-matter expert and the VP isn’t.”

I had to tell Cory I couldn’t help him. That’s when I started job-hunting myself.

Every company says “We want the smartest and most talented employees we can get!” but Liz, in my experience that isn’t true. Companies like my former employer can’t handle high-performing employees.

They hamstring them. They take away an outstanding employee’s motivation to succeed. They don’t recognize their achievements. They only give them harder and harder goals to reach.

When I interviewed with my current boss, I asked him a lot of questions about my ability to give latitude and rewards to outstanding employees and he completely understood the problem.

Cory has his own business so I didn’t try to recruit him, but it is so nice to be able to treat the employees on my team the way they deserve to be treated.

Thanks for your great advice and encouragement, Liz! I’m so glad I got out of that environment.