A recent social media post criticized managers who commit something called ‘performance punishment’ for penalizing the wrong workers.
The anti-manager movement continues loud and strong across social media. Not long ago, I told you about a string of such posts on LinkedIn that led me to unfollow some of the biggest offenders. Another recent one took on something “performance punishment.”
The post was apparently authored by a physical trainer with some military experience. His profile doesn’t mention any time leading a Fortune 500 company. While I respect the discipline required to be either a personal trainer or a member of our armed services, I didn’t see anything obvious in his bio that would justify him being treated as an expert in the traditional workplace.
Performance Punishment? Apparently it is a thing.
Ever heard of it? I’m sure you have and if you have a strong work ethic, you might even believe you’ve been a victim. You probably just haven’t heard it called by that goofy name.
The blog WorkAwesome, which bills itself as being a resource for “people who want to be awesome at work” and “awesome at what they’re passionate about,” defines it this way:
Simply put, performance punishment is when you perform like a superstar and the so-called reward is to your detriment.
If that’s a bit too simple an explanation, consider this one from the aforementioned post.
The post calls performance punishment “a dangerous game for leaders.” It alleges that being good at your job often attracts more work.
High-performers get overworked, the post suggests “to avoid growing your under-performers.”
That breeds resentment, prompting your good folks to leave while the poor performers don’t learn to do better.
Anyone who’s felt like a cog in a big wheel will be tempted to embrace the criticism. After all, if you’re not a manager, it’s fun to criticize those who are.
But this argument misses a few key points.
Let’s say you have a team of five workers who report to you. Two of those 10 are what we might call problem children. They do less than the minimum. Because you’re a good manager, you’ve pulled them aside and counseled them. You’ve been waiting (and hoping) to see results.
Of the remaining three, you have two that always go above and beyond. They’re your gold-star employees. If you could, you’d clone them. The fifth worker scores “Satisfactory” on annual reviews. He does the work that you require. He isn’t known for going above and beyond, but isn’t known for taking shortcuts or being lazy. He’s a solid performer that you can depend on.
So 40% of your workforce is unreliable.
Performance Punishment theory argues that because of the two bad employees, your other three are going to have to pick up the slack.
You have two exceptional employees, workers who demonstrate they’re capable — and even willing — to do more than their fair share. So you must ask yourself a simple question.
I’m going to need you to put on your pretend management hat for a moment, even if you’ve never been a manager. Two employees aren’t pulling their weight. Two employees have demonstrated they’re good at pulling additional weight.
The work must be done. You’re on deadline. Now what, manager, are you going to do?
Is ‘performance punishment’ really punishment?
Maybe I’m a bad person to ask. I grew up with a strong sense of work ethic. So I tend to be one of the over-achiever types. I don’t do it to be noticed, although occasional recognition is a nice thing. I do it because I think it’s easier to work a little harder to keep things going than to slow down and let even more work catch up with you. But I also think that I’d rather find something to do than to sit around waiting for something to pop up. The day goes by faster when you’re busy.
If my boss trusts me with additional responsibility, that generally speaks to their estimation of my talent. That’s a good thing.
If I’m able to satisfy their expectations with the additional projects, that’s something I can make note of and bring up during my annual review. Chances are, when that review happens, I’m going to get a better raise than Mr. Average. At least, depending on the economy and the company’s performance, there’s a decent chance that I will.
I think people see being given more work as punishment only when they’re already unhappy about something at their workplace.
I see it not as punishment but opportunity.
It’s unreasonable and unrealistic to paint all managers and all companies with one broad brush. They will always expect employees who go the extra mile to do so. The key to it is in rewarding those employees.
And no, every reward isn’t about the paycheck. Sometimes, it’s small gestures that make a huge difference.
Those stellar employees who feel they’re being “punished” for being so wonderful may be the problem here. Maybe they’ve been in the same place for too long. Maybe they — not their managers — are the ones who should walk out the door.
And maybe, just maybe, they can start a new job at a place as an underachiever and see if that grass really is greener. I’d bet they find it isn’t.