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Unfair workload will drive top workers away

Bosses, giving more work to your top producers may be convenient, but it's unwise

It is a common scenario. Person A is a competent worker who takes instructions well and can be counted on to get the job done. Person B is less experienced and known to make careless mistakes, but not of a nature serious enough to get fired.

Because Person A is more dependable, the bulk of the work goes to him, leading him to become stretched and frustrated. With less work assigned, Person B gets free time to kick back and work at a leisurely pace.

After amassing a sizeable portfolio, Person A throws in the towel and escapes to greener pastures. With little incentive to head anywhere, Person B stays on.

Fast forward 10 years, would you like to make a wild guess who is the new manager and what kind of people are left standing in the company?

This is probably the surest way for companies to slide into mediocrity. And it is happening all too often.

RELATIONSHIP OF CONVENIENCE

Mr Leong Chee Tung, chief executive officer of HR start-up EngageRocket, and former managing consultant of Gallup, has seen many such cases across all industries.

He said: "In the civil service, the most talented staff writers get assigned more papers to write; in sales teams, the most prolific salespeople get assigned the most leads; in engineering teams, the best engineers get assigned the most requests and the list goes on."

While managers do want to be fair to team members by ensuring fair distribution of work, many just end up sticking to the tried and tested approach by giving the task - no matter how small - to the person with a good track record, he pointed out.

Mr Leong says that this tends to work great in the short term, as work gets done faster and at a higher quality. But we all know that taking the easy way out often has consequences in the long run.

He said: "There's a risk that if the distribution of rewards is not perceived as fair, these top producers could easily decide to take their talent elsewhere."

REWARDING RIGHT

But those who contribute the most get rewarded the most, managers often protest. That makes sense theoretically, but some things are admittedly beyond their control, such as company performance.

If money is the main driving force, any perception of unfairness in the distribution of rewards is a cause for concern. For example, a top performer may add 10 times the value of his average peer, but most companies will not pay the person 10 times more.

By using a bell curve model when it comes to performance appraisals, most people will fall in the middle band by default. There is little incentive to aim for the top if the rewards don't match the effort put in.

Also, not everyone is motivated by financial gain, said Mr Leong.

QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY

To be fair, most employees would understand if it is crunch time or if there are special circumstances that require them to pitch in much more than usual. But if this persists throughout the year, regardless of the season, it is an indication of poor management.

For a start, Mr Leong suggests that managers take the time and effort to identify the relative strengths of team members before assigning the work accordingly.

He gave an example of two salesmen. One may be extremely talented at building new relationships quickly with many people and enjoys converting many leads in a short period of time.

The other may be much better at building deep relationships with key stakeholders instead of working the circuit.

A good sales manager would get the former to focus on quantity while deploying the latter to pursue large key accounts with complex internal relationships, explained Mr Leong.

"Both salesmen may ultimately perform equally well, and this would be dependent on the sales manager's ability to identify their individual talents and allocate work optimally."

It almost seems like a broken record to say that communication is critical for such a win-win situation to take place, but it is often the missing ingredient in manager-employee relationships.

Employees with grievances often think that managers can, or should, be able to read what is on their minds, and this is probably the start of a series of unfortunate misunderstandings.

But regardless, if your top people voice it out or not, the surest way to drive them away is to give them the most work to do with no regard for their strengths or interests, and take for granted the extra value they give.

What these people need are quality stretch assignments to help them grow, so don't bury their potential under an avalanche of menial work.

Relationships of convenience never last long.

This article was published in The Business Times Weekend.

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