How to spot high performers (and why they need coaching too)

How to spot high performers (and why they need coaching too)

High performers require a different coaching approach. Here’s how to give them what they need.

Your high performers are the powerhouses of your organization. They’re able to handle any task in their wheelhouse with precision and passion, and you can always rely on them to deliver results. As such, they need to be taken care of and not be taken for granted simply because they’re so consistent. 

Below, we’ll go over everything you need to know about high performers, including how to coach the high performers in your organization to protect them from their biggest enemy: burnout.

What is a high-performing employee?

Organizations will differ in their definition of a high-performing employee, but they’re typically the ones producing the top percentage of your output. You can think of this as the 80/20 rule, where the top 20% of your employees (the high performers) are producing 80% of the work or results.

Is it good to be a high performer?

It depends. In old-school corporate culture, being a high performer wasn’t really rewarded. It’s a common belief that the best employees don’t get promoted because no one can replace the work they do.

High performers are also known for working themselves to the bone, often leading to burnout. Being a high performer can be a good thing, so long as their hard work isn’t taken for granted by the organization, and they’re able to prioritize their own health.

What high performers want at work

Recognition and praise

Just like any employee, high performers want to be recognized for their contributions and praised for a job well done. Without this, they’re at risk of feeling underappreciated and disengaging from their work. 

“The challenge for organizations is to determine what recognition looks like to these high performers,” says executive and couples coach Dr. Robin Buckley. “Sometimes it is individual, and sometimes it can be considered from the general perspective of the generation within which the high performer exists.”

Constructive criticism

Because of their stellar performance, high performers rarely get feedback about how they can improve. Unfortunately, this can do them a disservice.

“High performers often know and are lauded for their strengths but are left in the dark about their weaknesses,” explains Jordan Lowry, COO of Resumoo.”This is where the conversation about what they want comes in. If the high performer has ambitions to move into a leadership or training position, this is a good opportunity to coach and develop those skills so they aren't set up for failure when a promotion changes the metrics.”

While most leaders disdain giving negative feedback, it’s exactly what high performers crave because they’re so interested in growth.

“The best gift that you can give a high performer is feedback and coaching that helps them expand their understanding of themselves, their relationships, and helps them make choices that unlock

greater potential and results,” says Isabella Zhou, marketing lead at Trustana. “The worst thing that you can tell a high performer is, ‘You're right on track. Don't change a thing.’” 

Challenge and growth

One of the pitfalls of being a high performer is that you tend to reach the top of your abilities pretty quickly. If they’re the top performer in your workforce, they’re likely not being challenged regularly. As a result, they might become bored and disengaged.

High performers want to be challenged because they want to grow. Take care to ensure that your high-performing employees are supplied with fresh and exciting challenges that help them stretch beyond their current status to reach their full potential.

Autonomy

High performers are highly skilled at their jobs and exceedingly motivated—so they don’t need hand-holding. In fact, too much micromanaging can stunt their performance. Give them guidance, and then set them free to do what they do best.

“Autonomy to get their work done how, when and where they want is a must,” says Stephanie Freiboth, owner of My Empowered Career, LLC. “High performers often have shortcuts they've developed over time and can slash through the noise to get the work done that is most important first.” 

Results

Ultimately, a high performer is known for their performance, so they become fixated on getting results. They may obsess over numbers and ratings above all else, which may be great for your organization’s bottom line but not so great for the high performers’ mental health. 

“High performers only want one thing at work,” says Israel Gaudette, founder of Link Tracker Pro, “greater results. You might question why they need better outputs when they already are performing better than others. Well, simply because they know that their best work is yet to come. And because of this, it would be best to coach them. With it, you’re unlocking their true potential.”

Why high performers need coaching

Even if they’re at the top of their game, they want to do even better

“[High performers] are supremely conscientious and always are looking for tips to do an even better job,” says Laurence J. Stybel, president of Stybel Peabody Associates. “An analogy I use with them that they can relate to: a high-performing professional golfer or ballet dancer is always looking for another edge. They want coaching to help keep that edge or make it sharper.”

They’re at high risk of burnout

“A high performer is also more likely to consistently go above and beyond, which can, unfortunately, lead to burnout,” says Christen Costa, CEO of Gadget Review. “However, proper coaching can help them learn their limits and prevent this from happening altogether.”

Left unchecked, high performers can become toxic to the workplace

“Many high performers can be oblivious to those around them, including the effect their behavior has on others,” explains Anthony Babbitt, president of Babbitt Consulting. “For instance, high performers can become divas who are hard to work with in team environments. High performers can also fail to see how their behavior can benefit those around them. High performers are a great resource for raising everyone's level of performance. Unfortunately, many high performers are unable to understand what makes them successful.”

How do you coach a high performer?

It can be tempting to leave your high performers to their own devices. Yes, they’re exceptionally self-motivated, productive and independent—but don’t let that fool you. Every high performer can be better (and wants to be). And behind that competent exterior is often a fragile ego. 

I spoke with several coaches and leaders about how to coach a high performer. Here’s what they shared.

Realize that they want coaching

What’s one difference between coaching a high performer versus a low performer?

“High performers don't need coaching; they desire it,” says Certified High Performance Coach Mary Meston. “They see how small changes and insights from good coaching help them reach yet another level in their performance, personal well-being, and contribution both at work and home.”

That means you don’t have to be shy about coaching a high performer or feel like you’re pulling teeth. Chances are, even if they haven’t verbalized it, your high performers want to improve their blind spots.

Create psychological safety

When coaching a high performer, tread carefully when it comes to areas that need strengthening.

“In my experience, high performers are very hard on themselves,” says performance specialist Olivia James. “High performers often feel they shouldn't have this problem and are reluctant to let anybody in.”

So how can you help your high performers grow without hurting their ego? 

“It's all about building safety and rapport and convincing them to let you see their flaws,” James says. “Then you can do the work.”

This is a concept known as psychological safety, and it’s crucial for building high-performing teams. Psychological safety is all about creating an environment where failure is perfectly acceptable, even crucial, on the journey to success. Let your high performers know that missing the mark is just part of the growth process. Once they see that failing doesn’t lessen their value, they’ll be much more open to your constructive feedback and much more open to taking the necessary risks to improve their performance.

Janelle Owens, HR director at Test Prep Insight, says that when it comes to high performers, positive feedback is important too. 

“Despite all of their self-driven success and competitive nature, at the core of every high performer is a certain insecurity,” Owens explains. “They want validation that their hard work is impressive and that their efforts are appreciated. High performers often have hardnose personalities, with little time for nonsense or business fluff, but really what they want is recognition. So it is important that managers coach their high-performing employees through positive reinforcement and feedback. It is this feedback loop and praise that perpetuates their hard work and effort.”

Help them set challenging yet realistic goals

As mentioned earlier, high performers want to be challenged because they want to grow—but they often need guidance around setting healthy and realistic goals.

“High performers can benefit from coaching to address their perspectives of ‘perfection’ or idealized goals,” says Dr. Buckley.“Coaching helps these individuals set high but realistic standards and expectations that challenge them, but do not result in burnout.”

What the science shows about goal-setting and motivation for anyone is that a goal should be just challenging enough to engage interest but not so challenging that it demotivates you. This applies to high performers too.

“Their high goals can also be unrealistic, setting them up for failure or for unhealthy requirements on their mental and physical energy,” explains Buckley. “Ultimately, in working with high performers, it is about how to establish their identity beyond their performance.”

Buckley recommends working with them on defining core values and determining what is important to them beyond their success.

Help them help others

Your high performers can make great leaders. This may require coaching on your part to prepare them to help the lower performers in your organization.

“A high performer needs to learn how to help the rest of the team achieve the same level of success,” says Babbitt. “More than just being an example, the high performer becomes a trainer too. This can seem like extra work to many high performers, but in the end, it makes their lives easier and the company more successful.”

But this comes with a caveat:

“Bear in mind that many high performers, especially those who excel due to vanity, can feel threatened by efforts to replicate their success among other employees. They may feel threatened that they are being replaced by lower-paid coworkers or may lose the status their success has brought them. These issues must be dealt with before a high performer can truly take on a leadership role. Failing to do so runs the risk of having the person sabotage any attempts made to get them to train a team.” 

Encourage balance to avoid burnout

By far, the biggest risk to your high performers is working so hard that they develop chronic stress that they fail to manage.

“In my experience as a coach, all of my clients tend to be overachievers, often over-commit, and be overly driven,” says Erin Urban, an executive career accelerator coach. “Without coaching guidance, these tendencies often alienate their colleagues and intimidate their leaders.”

To prevent burnout and optimize performance, Urban recommends focusing on “developing balance and perspective.”

“Common coaching themes are the importance of developing your network, leveraging your strength zones, becoming more collaborative, setting boundaries, developing a balanced energy plan, and managing your presence,” she says.

Help your high performers help you

Yes, high performers are extremely motivated to do their best, but they still need your help to optimize their performance. Everyone can benefit from coaching. And unlike average or low performers, high performers actually want your coaching to get continual feedback and praise on their path to self-improvement.

By following the expert tips in this article, you can ensure your high performers operate at their best and avoid burning out in the process.

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