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Your Top Performers May Be the Least Engaged

And the laggards are happy to stick around

Managers often assume that poor performers are disengaged and unhappy with their jobs. Not so, says a new study from Leadership IQ, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, which surveyed more than 200 companies.

It’s counterintuitive, but in 42 percent of companies, low performers report being more engaged, more motivated and more likely to enjoy working at their organizations than middle and high performers.

The findings, reported in a study titled “Job Performance Not a Predictor of Employee Engagement,” suggest many organizations are not holding employees accountable for their work, allowing the worst workers to skate by. “Low performers often end up with the easiest jobs because managers don’t ask much of them,” Leadership IQ CEO Mark Murphy told The Wall Street Journal.

The result: low performers are under less stress and more satisfied with their daily work lives.

Dedicated and conscientious workers, meanwhile, end up staying late at the office, correcting the work of the low performers, and making sure clients are satisfied. This pattern breeds frustration and disengagement in the high performers — and may ultimately drive them to seek work elsewhere. It’s disturbing news for any company that believes their people are their most important asset.

“They feel stressed and undervalued, and it starts to undermine the high performers’ confidence that the organiza­tion is a meritocracy,” Murphy said.

Murphy says many companies are failing to implement basic lessons of good leadership. Bosses should be clear about performance standards and transparent about what they want their employees to do. There should be what he calls “meritocratic accountability,” where high performers are regularly recognized and rewarded with praise, promotions and raises. And managers should not avoid difficult conversations with low performers, who should be told how and why their work is not up to snuff.

As for low performers, companies want them either to become more productive or to disengage and find work elsewhere. Companies don’t want deluded low performers who think they are contributing when they are really doing poorly to stick around because they have fallen in love with their cushy jobs.