How to Burn Out Your Top Performers

When rewards become punishing.

How to retain your top talent.

I wonder how many of you listening consider yourself a top performer.  Some of you would probably respond with an adamant YES!  Others might be more reluctant to do so.  Even when others might consider you as such.  But more about imposter syndrome in another episode!

I think about top performers not just as those who are technically competent, or who have a lot of subject matter knowledge….rather about those that are behaviorally outstanding and show emotional adulthood in ways that differentiate them from others.  I may rely on these people more on my team because of their willingness and “attitude” versus their technical competence.  And correspondingly may take advantage of these characteristics to get things done.

So, what’s important to recognize first is how you define top performance.  What does it mean to you, to your team and to your organization?  Is it defined or not?  Are there common competencies that individuals are evaluated and measured on, or not?

Answer that question first, and then consider how you communicate, develop and delegate to those around you.  Who are your “go to” people and why?  Who you consider a top performer does make a difference.

Then let’s consider burn out.  And define that next.

Burned out means in a state of physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.  I know that sounds dramatic, but we’ve probably all felt the feelings associated with figurative, if not literal collapse.  I’ve experienced it myself and seen it around me.  I probably created it as well, not deliberately, but through my own behaviors and actions (or inaction).  Here are 5 ways we create burn out.  See if any of them resonate with you.

How to Create Burn Out

  1. Not recognizing signs of individual stress; then not helping the individual to help themselves build stronger coping mechanisms: This is bigger than prioritization.
  2. Not recognizing that your job is to foster and strengthen employee resilience (capacity and ability to change): This is about both the mindset and skillset of being resilient.
  3. Delegating to the same individuals over and over: So the “reward” of new/challenging/exciting work becomes a punishment.  This may cause individuals to grow more cautious about revealing their capacity and capabilities or even their    They fear being taken advantage of.  And if one or two individuals are getting all the juicy assignments, this breeds resentment within a team and feels “favoritism-y.”  It’s also just not fair.
  4. Not developing a strong talent pipeline: Are you moving the collective talent of the team? Do you know where they are today and what they need in the future?
  5. Radio silence on praise reinforcement thanks gratitude kudos and the like.

Take Action:

  • Learn the individual signs. Then take action.  Look at yourself first.  What actions are you taking that are negatively affecting performance?  What are you doing to contribute to burn out, what can you do to mitigate it?
  • Then help those that need it. And I don’t mean to help them by merely prioritizing the workload.  I mean explore where they may need to cultivate and/or adjust behaviors, improve coping mechanisms, and foster healthy habits.  For example, what if that individual never says no?  What if the individual is not making good use of their time and energy?  What if their work habits are great and their health habits are terrible?  Dig below the surface to understand the contributors (other than you!) to the overwork and stress.
  • Be planful about creating resilience in your team. Check out for great ideas:  27 Resilience Activities and Worksheets for Students and Adults (+PDFs) (
  • Develop a talent plan. Think about your team in terms of a bell curve.  Know where individuals land and what needs to happen to advance their position on the curve. Continuously move the curve!  Many organizations have HR professionals that can partner with you to do this. This means know the talent you have and what you need short and long term.  And that you have a plan for continuous growth and development across every individual on your team.

In today’s competitive environment, we must retain top talent.  That means being hyper aware of the environment we create, the practices we engage in, and how we deal with stress and overwhelm. (NOTE:  You can also check out Episode Podcast 02 Exploring Locus of Control – Intentionaleaders for stress strategies.)

And finally, express appreciation for all that your team does and attempts to do.  Sincere praise and gratitude goes a long way to balance the ongoing demands placed on all of us.  You can be the difference between someone’s experience of gratitude or overwhelm.