High achievers often inadvertently create situations for themselves that lead to burnout. When a teammate is not able to meet a deadline, the department’s work doesn’t meet their standards, or a major project is on the line, they step in to fill the breach. Essentially they expand the scope of their job by assuming others’ responsibilities.
In the short run this isn’t a problem. Their intent and resulting outcome is good. However, it’s rarely a one-off situation. It can easily become a habit and create what we call the “stage manager” syndrome—when things are going well no one notices your contributions, but when things aren’t, you end up holding the bag.
Because high achievers are used to solving their own problems (and are very invested in doing so) they usually don’t raise issues with management until they’ve exhausted every avenue. By then, they are extremely stressed, exhausted, and often at a point where they’re considering leaving their jobs. Not the best time to loop management into an issue.
From their manager’s perspective, everything is fine one day and then suddenly they have a very unhappy high performer. Often the achiever cannot articulate exactly what the issue is, other than “too much work” or “other people not taking responsibility.” They can’t propose a solution because everything they’ve tried doesn’t seem to work. As a result, management hears a fast-track achiever complaining about working hard while blaming others and having no solutions to offer. This tends to raise questions even among the most supportive management.
As a manager, pay close attention to the behavior of your top people. Are they inadvertently creating “helpless” teammates? Are they being inappropriately/overly responsible? Are they taking on projects in areas where they don’t have the authority to control the outcome? If so, take them aside and bring their attention to the dynamic you’ve observed. Start by acknowledging that you know their behavior was driven by the best of intentions. Reiterate that you are concerned that there is a big downside for them as well as the business. After all, they are disguising staffing or structural problems. Help them create a game plan to manage others’ expectations and break their habits. In the short run, stay on top of the actions they’re taking in order to run interference and support them. Top performers are more than worth the extra effort.
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