Right now in many offices across the world, there is a chasm between two groups of people. One group is sitting pretty, happy, engaged, and well-rested from all the undisturbed sleep each night. The other group is just the opposite: mad, tired, stressed, and probably thinking, “this isn’t worth it”. The sad reality is that second group of people, the angry ones, may be your top performers.

According to a new study that was reported by Fast Company and WSJ, “Low performers often end up with the easiest jobs because managers don’t ask much of them, so they’re under less stress and they’re more satisfied with their daily work lives. Meanwhile, dedicated and conscientious workers end up staying at the office late, correcting the work of the low performers, and making sure clients or customers are satisfied. This pattern breeds frustration and disengagement in the high performers—and perhaps ultimately drives them to seek work elsewhere. They feel stressed and undervalued, and it starts to undermine the high performers’ confidence that the organization is a meritocracy,” said Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, the consulting firm that conducted the study.

What’s to be done? Consider the following steps to make sure you are connecting with your top (and bottom) performers to foster a strong company culture and employee engagement that is sustainable.

  1. Don’t take advantage of your best people. This is an obvious statement, but it happens all the time. There is a special breed of employee that is willing to give you everything, show up every day ready for the fight, and pour all passion into making your vision come true. While this is going on, we often ask more (and more and more and more) of them knowing that it will get handled. Don’t forget to tell them the value of their contribution, recognize their efforts early and often, encourage them to focus on their well-being by taking time when they need time, and finally, move out of their way so they find the best fit for their skills and leadership within the company.
  2. Set clear performance expectations for all people…and stay committed to them. Don’t make the mistake of letting some skate by without notice while the others are running out of steam (and hope). Set expectations, provide feedback and development opportunities, and course correct when people are unwilling to do their part. One of the most surprising facts about low-performers is that they aren’t even aware of their low-performing status. Research suggests this, which indicates that leadership may need to step up and do a better job communicating and setting these expectations evenly across the company.
  3. Create feedback opportunities. Have regular discussions with your middle and top performers to ensure you are aware of their state of mind and needs from the workplace. The relationship between company and employee needs to be a mutually beneficial one. These conversations can help you stay connected to the reality of your culture and how it’s enabling or potentially stifling employee engagement.

It seems counterintuitive to think that our top-performers can sometimes be the least satisfied, but this group can be neglected of some of the most fundamental needs we all have: recognition for our efforts, clarity around expectations, and the knowledge that the entire team is working together towards the same goal.