What to Do When a Top Performer Slips Up
Posted by Louellen Essex on February 6, 2014 in Communication, Leadership, Managing Difficult Situations, Performance Management
Top performers, by definition, tend to consistently do work that exceeds established standards. Holding themselves to high standards, they are driven to get outstanding results in all dimensions of the work they do. When top performers face the rare misstep, they typically self-regulate by moving quickly to own and repair the problem. Common wisdom about performance problems dictates that giving constructively critical feedback and assisting the staff person in creating solutions is a good way for leaders to work through the issue. For top performers, however, this may be the wrong approach . Assuming the slip up is not of career-derailing magnitude, here are some tips to appropriately help the top performer have a successful recovery.
External criticism often seems condescending to top performers. Of course they know what happened and why! Of course they are working on a solution! Their internal dialogue has already been critical, as they have chastised themselves for the blunder at hand. When you approach top performers, let them take the lead in telling the story of what happened and why. Ask questions, if needed, to assist them in determining the cause of the problem and potential solutions. Stay away from giving direction unless absolutely necessary.
Demonstrate confidence in their abilities.
Some top performers overreact to the situation by catastrophizing, exaggerating the extent of the problem. Put them at ease by placing the problem in perspective. Other top performers may be defensive, so reduce the threat by reassuring them you know they will put things back on track and (if true) the fault does not lie entirely with them. The most helpful thing you can say is I know you will do the right thing to fix this. You are a skilled problem solver. I am here to help in any way I can. Reassure top performers that you have not, in any way, lost faith in them.
If the problem was, in part, generated from barriers in other departments or by other individuals, promise to get rid of the obstacles. Perhaps the top performer didn’t get some necessary information or was burdened by equipment failure that should have been addressed proactively. Lend your support by addressing the logjam.
Reframe the problem as a good thing.
One of the development issues with top performer is that they typically don’t make enough mistakes to learn from those experiences. They settle into a pattern of consistent success which, while seemingly positive on the surface, can lead to stagnation. The positive impact of “failure” is that it affords a powerful learning opportunity. Point out to the top performer that the current situation provides the context within which to develop good recovery skills, solve uncommon problems, and hone the ability to deal with the stress of less-than-perfect performance.
Top performers need your support, not your disapproval. By employing the right approach you can capture the moment to motivate them to achieve even greater success.