Training Underachievers, Overachievers, and Everything in Between

Excerpt from “The Vibrant Workplace” by Paul White, Ph.D. (April 2017).

A vibrant workplace has several important core characteristics, but one is readily apparent: Work gets done. Sometimes leaders (especially managers and executives) assume that, because I talk a lot about appreciating others in the workplace, I am all about relationships (being a psychologist probably doesn’t help!). Along with this, they incorrectly conclude I am not focused on the “business side” of work and just want everyone to be happy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I react strongly to those in the field who focus solely on “being positive” without a corresponding understanding that work is about, well, work. Businesses and organizations exist to serve their customers and clientele, and they need financial resources to continue to do so. And I come unglued when I hear about Chief Happiness Officers—which I predict will fade into the sunset fairly quickly. No one is responsible for anyone else’s happiness, and focusing on trying to make others happy will fail.

So let’s clear the air here and now. Work is about work—getting tasks done and serving your customers. Work is not primarily about relationships, except as relationships help achieve the goals of the organization (or unless the task of your work is relationship building). The reality is, however, that healthy relationships are a key to successful organizations—relationships with clients, vendors, and those within the organization. For a work environment to be healthy, vibrant, and growing, attention has to be given to both the tasks of work and the relationships at work—because people work together to achieve the organization’s goals.

The Interrelationship Between Performance, Recognition, and Appreciation

The challenge of dealing with employee performance issues cannot be unraveled without understanding how employee recognition, performance, and appreciation are intertwined. Like a car engine that has both gas-powered systems and electronically driven components, the two systems are interrelated. Both the gasoline driven engine and the electrical system have to work well independently but they also must coordinate their efforts together for the car to fully function properly.

Performance is important, but . . .

Let’s first look at the importance of and challenges associated with focusing on the performance level of your team members. One definition of work is “providing goods and services that others want and are willing to pay for.” You have to get the tasks done in the timeframe desired by the client, at an acceptable quality level, for a price they are willing to pay, while managing the organization to be able to sustain itself financially.

But a basic challenge in working together with others is that not everyone performs at the same level with regard to the quality and amount of work done. Within a team, you probably will have at least one high achiever, a few above-average employees, a group of solid team members in the middle, and then some who are not performing up to the level expected.

High and above average. Team members who are “stars” exceed their goals and are largely self-motivated, so they are great to have on your team. As a supervisor, you instruct them, give them the resources they need, point them in the right direction, and let them go. But, in actuality, there are a couple of challenges in communicating appreciation to your above-average employees.

First, as a supervisor, it is easy to neglect them (especially the high-end achievers). They are sailing along and doing fine, so you let them be. Pretty soon, they can feel taken for granted and that you expect them to perform at a high level, all the time. Wise leaders continue to support, encourage, and show their high achievers how valued they are.

Separating recognition and rewards for performance from appreciation for them as a person is the second challenge. This is difficult on both ends—for the sender and the receiver. It can take effort for a supervisor to think about and call attention to those positive characteristics not related to achievement. And many high achievers have a hard time separating their self-worth from performing well, so the message has to be clear: “This isn’t about meeting your goals. I appreciate you as a person.

But even more important is the next group of employees: those who are critical to a successful organization but often get overlooked. They are the . . .

Average achievers. The group of employees supervisors should be concerned about is the larger group of “middle” employees. They aren’t high-performing stars. But they aren’t the lowest performers.

The middle employees are those 50 to 60 percent who generally do their work but aren’t going to be recognized as top performers. I liken them to the linemen and linebackers on a football team. They aren’t the star quarterbacks and running backs who score most of the points, but they are critical to having a solid team. Another analogy would be that the middle group of employees is like the flour and eggs in a baking recipe. If all you have are spices and icing, you don’t have much of a cake!

These are the employees who need appreciation for their “day-in, day-out” work on mundane, non-flashy tasks. If you lose your middle employees, you will struggle to perform well as a team. Often, when encouraged and treated with respect, a number of the middle workers move up and become key team players important to the success of the organization.

Conversely, if neglected and ignored, they will either sink into the lower ranks of performance as a result of discouragement and not feeling valued, or they will quit and move on to another place where they hope to be appreciated for their contributions.

You don’t want this to happen. So I suggest the following:

Support and encourage those reliable employees who are not performing well. Everyone needs encouragement. Stay true to your standards and don’t let them slide, but remember some people may have other things going on in their lives that may be affecting their performance. Be firm but kind.

Focus on shaping their behavior in the right direction. Don’t try to move them from a C-plus player to an A-minus star. It’s like teaching soccer to little kids—you can’t just praise them when they score a goal (it may not happen all season!), but you praise them when they are kicking the ball to a team member. At work, if they get part of the task done correctly, mention that piece and then add one specific thing they could do slightly better.

Underachievers/low performers. A “straw-man” argument is a proposition that someone sets up as a false argument to, at least temporarily, erect an obstacle and distract from the real issues and concerns. Arguing about how or whether to show appreciation to low performers is the straw-man argument here.

Many managers who seem foundationally against appreciation in the workplace often raise the objection: “Right, so I’m supposed to appreciate an employee who doesn’t do his or her job?” (Often, not wanting to show appreciation to anyone seems to be the real reason for this objection.)

In spite of this, leaders need to understand that the issue touches two sensitive areas, one related to performance, and the other to the intrinsic worth of the person. This creates a difficult point of tension. First, low performers need to be managed by holding them accountable to the standards they are supposed to meet. Eventually, either their performance will improve or they won’t stay around long (whether voluntarily or involuntarily). On the other hand, the employee still has value as an individual, and coworkers may appreciate him or her for non-work-related characteristics.

Recognition and Appreciation: Understanding Their Purposes

Dealing with employees who function at a variety of levels in their jobs can make communicating appreciation challenging. This becomes even more complicated within a work setting that has a strong performance-based recognition program.

Remember that a foundational difference between employee recognition and authentic appreciation is the fact that they each have different purposes. The primary goal of recognition is to call attention to and reward desired behaviors and results. While the actions used in recognition and appreciation can appear similar, the goal of appreciation is different: to communicate and affirm the value of the individual.

Using the analogy of plants, some plants are supposed to produce (like corn and apple trees), while other plants have a different purpose—to provide shade, to give protection from the wind, or just to beautify the environment. Using recognition for those activities focused on production and applying appreciation to situations where encouragement and support is needed will bring about the best results for all involved. Working to ensure that executives, managers, HR professionals, supervisors, and employees understand that the purpose of each set of activities differs will help to facilitate using the right activities for the desired outcomes.

Excerpt from “The Vibrant Workplace” (April 2017) by Paul White, Ph.D.

Dr. Paul White is an author, speaker, and psychologist, who helps “make work relationships work.” He is the coauthor of “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace” with Dr. Gary Chapman. His latest book is The Vibrant Workplace (April 2017). For more information, visit:

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