It is a common tale.

A high percentage of amazing, talented people work for your organization. Things are great. Competition gets tougher, talented people stay and grow with you. You tighten the screws, and refer to your “high-performance” culture as the reason it is acceptable (read: encouraged) for said talent to pour their lives into your company. Talented people question if this is all there is in life. Finally, talented people leave.

What went wrong?

The “High-Performance” Organization

We want all of our organizations to be high-performing. That seems obvious at the surface level. In fact, the high-achievers you are dying to attract don’t want to work anywhere that isn’t a high-performance culture because they don’t want to be stuck on a project with a bunch of dud coworkers (just like in college, right?). The best people tend to be attracted to the best organizations.

Highly performing organizations often do so many things right. They have good amenities, competitive total rewards, leadership development, and of course, a strong internal promotion culture. Their leaders are trained, not just over-promoted executors. The senior leadership team has a vision and strategy that the whole organization understands and works towards.

More often than not, though, there is one fatal flaw of the high-performance culture. Over time, high-potentials grew up in the organization only to find out that they have been dedicating an inordinate amount of their energy to their work. It becomes silently ingrained in the organizational culture that busy is a badge of honor, long hours are to be exalted or expected, and an idea that “frankly, you must not be the high performer we thought you were if you aren’t willing to do what it takes.”

The Worn-Out Welcome

Suddenly, the amazing “high-performance” organization that offered challenging work and all the meaning and growth talented leaders needed has become something worth escaping.

The paradox is often the best people will dedicate their energy on their own, not because the company explicitly prompted it. But when the drive of high-potentials goes unchecked, they will continue to try and live into the high expectations at an unsustainable pace. The company’s tacit compliance of a breakneck pace is the tipping point and eventually frustration, burnout, and turnover occur.

The moment something upsets the equilibrium (say, talented female leader becomes a mom), the Hi-Po has to recalibrate their life. They realize that the hours worked and energy pushed in a singular direction is no longer their jam. However, they are the same awesome leader. Does their recalibration outside of the high-performance company make them less awesome? No, it does not.

If I don’t put every ounce into the singular focus of work anymore, will I no longer be viewed as being as good at my job?

I hear from high-potentials, women especially, that often feel drained. And guilty that they should feel more grateful for their job, the promotions the organization has given them, their experiences. Bright, killer awesome talent that doesn’t see how super-employable they are, yet are scared to look at what else is out there for fear of losing out. In the ever-present conversation of whether or not high-powered working women can “have it all,” high-potentials start to question themselves. If I don’t put every ounce into the singular focus of work anymore, will I no longer be viewed as being as good at my job? Or worse, will I no longer actually be good at my job?

Additionally, many high-performance cultures are so focused inward that their members are not encouraged or feel they do not have time to get out and grow their network. Your company becomes invisible in the local landscape, and they lack development. Everyone is too busy working in the business, rather than on the business, growing their tribe, and filling their development bucket. Companies lose out but don’t have time to notice the opportunity cost.

For Companies: The Antidote

Take a hard look – which type of high-performance company are you? If you are the busy/long hours is better type, the law of averages is coming to get you and over time (particularly as our youngest generations take on senior leadership roles) your high-performers are going to realize that pouring their life into only one cup (yours) may no longer be serving them. And the companies who are doing it right will get all of the marbles.

Here are some potential red flags that your high-performance culture has gone too far:
  • The glorification of busy: people always talk about how busy they are, as if they deserve a medal
  • Consistently long work weeks: As in, “I haven’t had a break for air since 2014”
  • “Heads down” mentality: No one has time to network, evangelize your company, or eat lunch
  • Turnover creeps up: A few particularly painful losses in talent seep in

Have some open and honest conversations with your top talent. Ask about these topics, and find out how they are feeling. Walk the talk on appropriate work-life balance. Keep your eyes open to the difference between truly high-performance of your organization for the long game, or burning out your brightest stars.


About the author:

Katie Rasoul is the Chief Awesome Officer for Team Awesome, a leadership coaching and culture consulting firm. Find out more by visiting or sign up for our mailing list for awesomeness coming straight to your inbox. Follow Team Awesome on Facebook and Twitter.

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