It’s a problem most leaders would clamor for: Your employees are almost too good at their jobs. As their manager, you feel at a loss for recommendations for what to improve and how to grow. Is it worth nitpicking? Could your feedback potentially spoil a good thing?
“If you have to review an employee who can do the job in their sleep, the exchange takes on another level of complexity,” said Jagoda Wieczorek, HR Manager at ResumeLab. “And let’s be honest, shrugging and saying, ‘Keep up the good work!’ doesn’t cut it either. From my experience, you still have an obligation to challenge them.”
In cases like these, managers need to take a different approach. We asked HR and management experts like Wieczorek to share their advice for giving already stellar employees feedback.
1. Focus on process, not just results.
Results aren’t everything. Invoking an old adage, experts advised managers to pay particular attention to the journey, not just the destination.
“When conducting a review, it's important to sometimes look past the employees’ accomplishments. Instead, spend more time on just how they achieved them,” said Rosie Axford, co-founder of Wicklewood. While the employee may have crushed their goals, what obstacles did they run into along the way? Are there things they could have done differently to avoid them?” Axford said. “By dissecting their processes, it’s possible to identify areas that can be improved upon and enable them to perform at an even higher level.”
Ahead of the feedback conversation, managers should turn to their notes, as the employee may have mentioned these challenges during a weekly status update or one-on-one meeting. Axford also noted that peer feedback could help you read between the lines and recommend improving soft skills, like communication, collaboration, and empathy. Maintaining a paper trail, manually or through a management tool like Lattice, makes it possible to provide the specific, actionable advice that top performers crave.
2. Set different, not just higher goals.
Stretch goals are, by definition, uncomfortable. But if your top performers regularly meet or exceed targets, that doesn’t mean you should simply make the goals even more uncomfortable. HR and management experts encouraged managers to be more creative than just upping quotas.
“A common mistake that many leaders make is always setting higher targets for their best workers. They assume that if their top performers work so well, why not push them even more?” said Susan Norton, Senior Director of Human Resources at LiveCareer. While this strategy might work at first, Norton advised that only increasing numbers can give employees the impression that they’re being “punished” for excelling, especially when peers are held to a lower standard on the same goals.
“Instead, the key is to have a development plan for your top performers and set challenging but achievable goals based on that,” Norton said. Setting goals like learning a new technical or soft skill makes the exercise feel tailored and personal. “This way, your employees will know that not only the company but also they personally benefit from their top performance.”
3. Leverage competency matrices.
Top performers are focused on what’s next. Unfortunately, that’s also what makes it harder for employers to retain them. In a Randstad survey, nearly 60% of workers felt they needed to leave their companies to advance their careers. And if managers can’t offer constructive advice, informed by company job levels and competencies, growth-minded employees may feel like they’re stuck in place.
“Top performers, based on my experience, always have their eyes on the prize,” said Arnas Vasiliauskas, Chief Innovation and Product Officer at carVertical. Rather than base your feedback on the job they have, consider what they’re working toward. Mapping this out in a job leveling or competency matrix makes it easier to gauge how the employee is tracking toward their next promotion. It also makes the role’s career ladder (or career lattice) crystal clear. “Top performers are eager to know how near they are to the top,” Vasiliauskas said. “Show them where they stand, and if you do it well enough, this will motivate them even more.”
If the next job level entails management, allow the top performer to try it out with a lower-stakes assignment, like supervising an intern or taking on an internal mentee. “When they keep hitting targets, they can grow bored... Teaching and grooming another individual is a different kind of challenge and will shake things up for the employee. That will give you a brand new dimension to offer feedback on.”
4. Ask them for upward feedback.
If you’re still unsure of how to support your top performers, just ask. As a manager, you should feel comfortable flipping the script and asking them for feedback. That reciprocity is at the core of what 360 performance reviews are all about.
“Value your high achievers by promoting a two-way dialogue instead of being the only one speaking. They likely have some suggestions about how you can help them,” said Anjela Mangrum, President at Mangrum Career Solutions. While managers should always be open to receiving feedback, regularly asking top performers for theirs serves as a form of recognition. “This also lets them know you have a lot of respect for them and high hopes for their career. Ask them about their ambitions, any obstacles they see in achieving them, and any improvements you could make as a manager.”
Brian DeChesare, CEO of Mergers & Inquisitions, had an even stronger take. “If the employee is doing really great, sometimes you’re the one who needs to listen...Find out more about what they like and don’t like, then use that information to recruit more talent like them,” DeChesare said. “Ask them what would make them happier and advice for how to make it happen — and really listen.”
Employee growth doesn’t have an endpoint. If companies want to retain their top performers, it’s management’s responsibility to keep them challenged with constructive feedback and new assignments.
“Don't ever let your employees settle for good enough or even excellent,” Wieczorek said, reflecting on the advice she often gives her first-time managers. Leaders who put in the effort to help already-exceptional employees reach even further are seldom disappointed by the results.
“Give your employees space and inspiration to stretch. They'll amaze you — and themselves,” she said.