How to Deal With High-Potential and High-Performing Employees

5 min read
Jul 21, 2016

How to Deal With High-Potential and High-Performing EmployeesWhen examining employees, it can be tempting to categorize the type of worker they are by how well they do their job. A binary system like that is simple to follow, after all. If they’re efficient and disciplined, then they’re good workers, and if not . . . they’re not.

After separating the good apples from the bad, though, one of the most important distinctions a manager can make about their employees is whether they’re “high-potential” or “high-performing” workers. While the two terms seem inextricably linked, understanding what separates them is often the difference between a manager who’s able to build a successful team and one who struggles to motivate and retain valuable employees. In the 2014 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study by Willis Towers Watson:

  • 27% of managers said that they monitor the effectiveness of their development programs
  • 70% of employees felt that their organization should understand them to the degree that they do their customer base

As a manager or leader, it’s your job to understand your employees and their motivations. Take the time to understand your top talent, and you can be richly rewarded in employee loyalty. Fail to do so, and you risk losing out on the people that grow your business. So let’s take a look at what distinguishes the high-performance and high-potential employee.


High Performers

A high-performance employee is someone that’s extremely good at their job. Put a project in their hands, and they’ll deliver a polished product that’s everything you asked for and, in many cases, even more. They’re awesome at what they do, and they like to do it. They’re also less interested in moving up the corporate ladder than they are with doing a great job every day.


High Potentials

These are the future leaders of your company. They’re just as determined as the high-performance employee when it comes to delivering quality results day in and day out. Where they differ is that the high-potential employee goes above and beyond the scope of their role, working to understand the business on a deeper level and how they can have the biggest impact on its success.


Subtle Differences


Don’t Lose Your Top Talent!

There are many reasons why it’s necessary to distinguish between these types of employees. But in particular, managers should be aware of these distinctions so that they can properly target the development goals of their workers. Without an understanding of what’s driving your top employees to achieve their results, there’s no way to know how you can best set them up for success within your company. The alternative, of course, is that they will seek out employment in an environment that knows how to reward them the way they’re looking to be rewarded. Here are some tips on how to approach each one:

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Rewarding High-Performance Employees

For the employee who’s crushing it in the workplace but doesn’t show initiative or seek responsibility outside of their role, the easiest way to reward them is with monetary or benefit incentives. This can come in the form of a raise if they’ve consistently managed to exceed expectations over a period of time or, alternatively, by providing bonuses for reaching certain goals. Likewise, greater benefits can be extended to these employees, such as more generous PTO accrual or the ability to work flexible schedules.

Essentially, if this individual is showing all the signs of being high-performance but is lacking in leadership potential, directly compensating them for their achievements can be a great route to go. It’s your job as a manager to determine what they’re looking for when it comes to being rewarded and figuring out what you can provide them.

However, it’s important to recognize that high-performance employees may desire the type of upward mobility that their high-potential counterparts are suited, for but are unaware of how to get there. Make sure you’re taking the time during performance reviews to assess what they’re looking for and if they are interested in climbing the corporate ranks, helping to put them on a path towards that goal.


Rewarding High-Potential Employees

For high-potential employees, things aren’t always quite as simple. These workers are characterized by their ambition, vision, and dedication to quality work. And as such, expect their managers to be equally adept at utilizing them to their full capacity. While good pay and benefits are important to them, SHRM points out that incentives like these have come to be expected by top employees. They know their worth, and if they don’t feel like they’re being properly compensated, they have no trouble moving on to the next job.

Instead, SHRM suggests doing things such as letting them know how important they are and giving them real responsibility. Acts like these tell high-potential employees that their efforts have not gone unnoticed and that you’re looking to them to take on a bigger role within the company. These employees need to feel that they can grow and develop in their positions, so it’s extremely important to show them you’re working with them towards that goal. Talk with them during one-on-ones and express what they’re excelling at, what they can improve on, and specific plans of action that will give them more responsibility in the former and a chance to work on the latter.

When it comes to rewarding your best employees, the very first step is making sure you’re both clear about expectations. Knowing whether your best workers are high-performance or high-potential can help eliminate the struggles many managers face when it comes to motivating and keeping a strong team together. Not doing so proves costly, both in lost talent, as well as in spending resources training the wrong people for the job. Identify who’s moving towards a leadership role and who should be there to support them, and you’ll be setting yourself and your team up for success. TINYpulse

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.   

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