Performance Punishment: The Reason You May Be Losing Your Best People.


Humans innately want to be great. Our drive for status – a need to be seen by others as capable, worthy, or impactful – is so fundamental to human survival that the brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin when we get a status boost, so that we keep coming back for more. In fact, those brain candy rewards are so sweet, we work harder to get them again, and again. And there could be an evolutionary design to make us want to take care of our tribe: status seekers are good for society because when humans achieve great things, the entire species wins.

In the workplace, being given the toughest assignments or problems to solve that seemingly no one else can are ways to get the feel-goods. For those especially driven by status rewards at work, hearing things like “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 signals for being chosen over others for your abilities, you also get to complete a task which provides a second rush of reward signals for the achievement of a job well done. Status at work can deliver a double-dose of feel-good emotions, so it’s no surprise status junkies end up being overachievers.

The downside of overachievement

But for all the feel-good endorphins you may get from continually bailing out your manager or your team, you can’t stave off reality. That after-hours call for help from your supervisor that comes in, while you’re making dinner, feels good, for a minute. Then reality sets in: A slacker on your team is having an uninterrupted dinner, as if being rewarded for their low level of achievement with a gift of respect for their time. That sweet brain candy turns into a fiery response and the brain signals trigger a much stronger fight or flight response than the feel-good emotions. This happens because fairness, like status, is another domain of social experience that activates strong threat and reward signals and drives behavior. Before you know it, what started out as over achievement turns high performance into performance punishment–where unequal taskings turn into unfair burdens.

While status reward signals make us feel good, fairness threat triggers are even stronger. That’s because the brain has evolved for our survival, identifying and responding faster 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 a snake, you might become lunch. To put this 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 burnout.

Over time, repeatedly being put in an unequal situation becomes a chronic, persistent state. So much so that it can condition you to anticipate this, so that every time you see a Skype chat from your supervisor that says “got a sec?” your brain responds by signaling a threat state, before you even read the whole message. This chronic condition, and resulting avoidance, can quickly lead to burnout.

The burnout-bias connection

The burnout problem caused by performance punishment can’t be solved by overachievers. The punished employee could attempt to disrupt the behavior by reducing their value, either by pushing back or by underperforming. But pushing back is hard when teams support each other, and underperformance isn’t likely going to happen in the case of an overachiever. It’s incumbent upon the leader, then, to mitigate their biases to fix this.

Imbalance in assignments often happens when well-meaning supervisors make quick decisions based on unconscious biases. These biases are similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety – known as the SEEDS Model. In work assignments, they can look like this:

Similarity – “I’ll give it to the person who shares my view on the subject.”

Expedience – “I’m assuming this person has the most capacity for this task.”

Experience – “I think this person did a task like this before.”

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

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

Continuing to rely upon mental shortcuts creates a compound negative effect on the decision-maker, too. By perpetuating the inaccurate perception of a team’s true capabilities, leaders are reinforcing their own behaviors and viewing their team through their biases. This may result in not seeing the growth you expect from an under-performer, because you never give them opportunities: or thinking your team has more capacity than it really does, because you keep depleting your only capable people.

Active bias mitigation in managing people is a regenerative talent practice, but only when we really lean into it. Awareness of our biases isn’t enough to prevent poor leadership decisions and unfairness in handing out assignments. To create long-term behavior change, habits need to be prioritized and systems need to be in place that encourage – not inhibit – their ability to be practiced. To proactively address bias, these three habits must be practiced daily:

Label – To identify what type of cognitive bias you’re having

Mitigate – To apply in-the-moment strategies and preventative measures

Engage – To encourage others to help mitigate the influence of bias in teams


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

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

Want to know more?