Performance Punishment May Be the Reason You’re Losing Your Best People


Humans innately want to be great. Our drive for status — a need to be seen as capable, worthy, or impactful — is so strong the brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin when we get a status boost, such as praise or a promotion. In fact, these brain rewards are so sweet we work hard to get them again and again.

In the workplace, being given the toughest assignments or problems to solve sends strong status signals. For those driven by status rewards, hearing things such as, “I know you’re swamped, but there’s no one else I can trust to get it done fast and right,” is enough for you to ignore the red flags or competing demands on your time. Not only do you feel a rush of reward for being chosen over others, you get a second rush for the achievement of a job well-done. Being recognized and entrusted with challenging work delivers a double dose of feel-good emotions. No wonder status junkies are often overachievers.

The downside of overachievement

But the feel-good chemicals your brain gets from continually bailing out your manager or team come with a downside. That after-hours call for help you receive while making dinner feels good, for a minute. Then reality sets in: A less competent colleague is enjoying an uninterrupted dinner, as if being rewarded for not being as good at their job. That sweet brain candy is replaced by a fiery fight-or-flight response. That’s because fairness, like status, is a domain of social experience that activates strong threat and reward signals in our brain. When the unfairness of the situation dawns on you, high performance turns into performance punishment — where you’re penalized with extra duties for being the better worker, and unequal assignments become unfair burdens.

While status rewards make us feel good, they’re easily overpowered by fairness threats. That’s because the brain evolved for our survival, responding more quickly and strongly to threatening or negative situations than pleasurable ones. For example, if you miss an invitation for a free meal, you might miss lunch, but if you miss seeing a bear, you might become lunch. In the context of performance punishment, if we aren’t in the spotlight, we risk missing a compliment. But if we aren’t tasked equally, we risk being burned out.

Over time, receiving unfair treatment repeatedly conditions you to anticipate it, so every time you see a message from your boss that says, “Got a sec?” your brain signals a threat state. This constant activation of the stress response can eventually lead to burnout.

The burnout-bias connection

Burnout caused by performance punishment can’t be solved by workers themselves. The “punished” employee could level the playing field by reducing their value, either by pushing back or underperforming. But pushing back is hard when you want to be a team player, and overachievers are unlikely to allow themselves to slack off. It’s incumbent upon the leader, then, to fix the problem.

Imbalance in assignments often happens when well-meaning supervisors make quick decisions based on unconscious biases. These biases are categorized into five main types under The SEEDS Model®, which stands for similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety. Here’s how each of them affects work assignment:

Similarity bias: “I’ll give the task to the person who shares my view on the subject.”

Expedience bias: “I assume this person has the most capacity for this task.”

Experience bias: “I think this person completed a similar task before.”

Distance bias: “This person is already on the phone with me, so I’ll just ask them.”

Safety bias: “I don’t feel I can trust anyone else for this task.”

Relying on mental shortcuts also has negative effects on the decision-maker. By perpetuating an inaccurate perception of a team’s true capabilities, leaders reinforce their own behaviors and biases. They don’t see the desired growth in an underperformer because they never give them opportunities, or they think their team has more capacity than it really does because they keep depleting their highly capable people.

Active bias mitigation is therefore crucial. It’s a regenerative talent practice, but only when we lean into it. Awareness alone isn’t enough to prevent poor leadership decisions and unfairness when handing out assignments. To create long-term behavior change, habits need to be prioritized and systems need to be in place to encourage those habits. Practice these three habits daily to proactively address bias:

Label: Identify what type of cognitive bias is at work.

Mitigate: Apply in-the-moment strategies and preventive measures.

Engage: Encourage others to help mitigate the influence of bias.

When brain-friendly habits become the norm, leaders, direct reports, and teammates have a shared language and mutual support that allow open and honest communication. Teams that openly recognize when biases creep in can help each other course-correct and prevent burnout. With more time and capacity, status junkies can explore better ways to get their brain candy fix.

Authors: Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T. , Emma Sarro, Ph.D

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