Organizations of all types work hard to develop and retain high performers, yet there is a persistent problem: High performers are often punished for excelling. In fact, so-called "performance punishment" is a common reason for high performers to leave their positions. 

What is Performance Punishment?

Performance punishment refers to the negative consequences that high performers face despite (or in some cases because of) their exceptional performance. 

It is the detrimental treatment high performers receive, which can include excessive workload, unrealistic expectations, lack of recognition, limited growth opportunities, and isolation from the team. Sometimes called “quiet promotions,” this can result in employees taking on additional work with no title change and little or no additional compensation.

Performance punishment is often unintentional but can nonetheless cause serious problems for an organization. Here are just a couple examples:

  • Leaders often make the mistake of overestimating the capabilities of great performers because their skills and achievements make their work appear effortless.

  • Bigger projects and responsibilities may be seen by the manager as a reward but can feel merely like additional work for the employee.

What do high performers do differently?

7 qualities and behaviors of high performers that set them apart from their peers:  

  1. Drive and ambition- high performers have a strong internal drive to excel and achieve their goals. They are highly motivated and constantly seek opportunities for growth and advancement.

  2. Continuous learning- high performers are avid learners who actively seek out new knowledge and skills to improve their performance. They are not afraid to step out of their comfort zones and take on new challenges.

  3. Self motivation- high performers have a strong sense of self-discipline and take responsibility for their own success. They set high standards for themselves and consistently strive to exceed them.

  4. Focus on results- high performers are outcome-oriented and prioritize achieving tangible results. They are proactive in finding solutions and overcoming obstacles to meet their objectives.

  5. Strong work ethic- high performers are known for their dedication and hard work. They are willing to put in the extra effort required to deliver exceptional results.

  6. Effective communication- high performers understand the importance of clear and concise communication. They are skilled at conveying their ideas, collaborating with others, and building strong relationships.

  7. Adaptibility- high performers are flexible and adaptable in the face of changing circumstances. They can quickly adjust their approach to meet new challenges and seize opportunities.

Understanding these qualities can help organizations identify and nurture high performers within their workforce, creating an environment that fosters their growth and development.

How Are High Performers Punished?

Despite their exceptional performance, high performers often face various forms of punishment within organizations. These punitive measures can be detrimental to their well-being and job satisfaction. 

Excessive Workload

High performers are often burdened with excessive workloads due to their demonstrated capabilities. They may be assigned additional tasks and responsibilities without considering their capacity, leading to burnout and reduced performance.

Limited Growth Opportunities

Paradoxically, high performers may find their career advancement limited because they are seen as indispensable in their current roles. This lack of growth prospects can demotivate high performers and make them feel undervalued.

Lack of Recognition

High performers may not receive adequate recognition and rewards for their exceptional contributions. This lack of acknowledgment can lead to feelings of underappreciation and demoralization.


High performers may be isolated from their peers due to jealousy or perceived threat. This social exclusion can negatively impact their sense of belonging and collaboration within the organization.

Unrealistic Expectations

High performers may be subjected to unrealistic expectations and pressures to maintain their exceptional performance levels consistently. This constant pressure can lead to stress, anxiety, and a decline in overall well-being.

These forms of punishment can create a toxic work environment for high performers, ultimately driving them to seek opportunities elsewhere.

2023 Anxiety Guide

Impacts of Performance Punishment

The punishment of high performers not only affects the individuals directly involved but also has wider implications for their peers and the organizations as a whole. Here's how:

  • Punishing high performers can demoralize them, leading to a decline in their motivation, engagement, and productivity. This, in turn, affects the quality of work they produce.

  • When high performers are punished, it sends a discouraging message to their peers. It creates a culture where exceptional performance is not rewarded, which can decrease overall morale and motivation within the team.

  • Punishing high performers increases the risk of losing top talent. If organizations fail to recognize and reward exceptional performance, high performers may seek opportunities elsewhere, leading to talent drain and difficulties in attracting new high-performing individuals.

  • When high performers are punished, they may become hesitant to take risks or propose innovative ideas. This can hinder creativity and limit the organization's potential for growth and innovation.

  • Organizations that have a reputation for punishing high performers may struggle to attract top talent in the future. Prospective employees may be discouraged from joining a company where their exceptional performance could be met with punishment rather than recognition.

Organizations should make concerted efforts to avoid punishing high performers and to create an environment that fosters their growth and success. 

7 Strategies to Prevent Performance Punishment:  

  1. Manage underperforming employees appropriately- Assigning responsibilities to top performers that underperformers have not completed is one of the prime examples of performance punishment. This situation can lead to several negative consequences: resentment from the top performer; continued inappropriate behavior by the underperformers; and dissatisfaction from other employees who are witnesses to the issue.

    By managing underperforming employees appropriately, organizations can create a culture of accountability, continuous improvement, and fairness. This approach benefits both the underperforming employees, who have the opportunity to develop their skills, and the overall team, which can thrive in a high-performance environment.

  2. Recognize and reward exceptional performance- implement a robust performance management system that recognizes and rewards high performers appropriately. This can include monetary incentives, promotions, career development opportunities, and public recognition.

  3. Provide growth opportunities- offer high performers opportunities for growth and advancement within the organization. This can involve providing challenging assignments (with appropriate rewards), leadership development programs, and mentoring or coaching support.

  4. Foster a positive work environment- create a positive and inclusive work environment where high performers feel valued and supported. Encourage teamwork, collaboration, and open communication to foster a sense of belonging.

  5. Encourage work-life balance- help high performers maintain a healthy work-life balance by promoting flexible work arrangements, providing wellness programs, and encouraging regular breaks. Managers should monitor employee workloads to ensure that they do not become overwhelming. 

  6. Provide constructive feedback- offer regular and constructive feedback to high performers to help them further improve their skills and performance. This feedback should focus on development and give them a sense that their work is recognized and valued by the organization.

  7. Ask high performers for feedback- high performers often have ideas and suggestions that can improve the organization, and being asked to share them can be viewed as a sign that management appreciates their contributions. 

By implementing these strategies, organizations can create an environment that not only supports high performers but also motivates and encourages others to strive for excellence. This, in turn, leads to improved overall performance and a positive organizational culture.

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5 Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently, Ron Friedman, Harvard Business Review

Are We Punishing Our Top Performers? Culture, Engagement, & Motivation, Jason Lengstorf, Lead Dev

Performance Punishment: The Reason You May Be Losing Your Best People, Joy VerPlanck & Emma Sarro, PhD, NeuroLeadership Institute

The Perils of Performance Punishment, Laurel McKenzie,

The Pitfalls of “Performance Punishment”, Pete Hillier, CD, CISSP.,