Why Top Performers Quit

6 Simple Reasons Your Top Performers Quit

By George Dickson on October 26, 2015

Losing a top performer hurts, and it's an increasingly common issue in the modern workforce. A study last year by SAP and Oxford Economics revealed that one in five high performers are likely to leave their jobs within the next six months — and less than half are satisfied with their jobs.

While reducing turnover is important overall, retaining your top performers is absolutely crucial.

Sure, but how do you actually do that?

Start by taking a step back and analyzing the cause. Understanding why top performers quit is the first step in preventing yours from leaving for greener pastures. Luckily, you don't have to make these mistakes yourself to learn from them. Plenty of others already have.

Here are six reasons top performers quit, and some steps you can take today to keep them on the team:

1. Their expectations are not being met

Do you know what your top performers expect? The SAP / Oxford Economics study found that employees value competitive compensation, merit-based rewards, retirement plans, training, flexible work locations and schedules, vacation time, family benefits, education, and personal recognition from higher ups.

Further down the list were items like amenities and health care. This isn't to say that an employee's access to health care isn't important — it's just not the strongest driving factor in retention of top performers.

Why is that?

Top performers have a different set of expectations.

If your company isn't able to meet your top performers' basic expectations, another company could easily whisk them away. On the other hand, if your top performers are well compensated and rewarded for their contributions, have a great work-life balance, and feel appreciated, they're going to find very little incentive in leaving your team.

2. They want to feel valued — and they aren't

The survey showed that employees place more value on rewards and recognition than on health care. Yet, how much time and money do you devote to developing an employee recognition program as opposed to traditional benefits and incentives?

If they don't feel valued, your best employees will eventually leave.

Top performers tend to be dramatically more productive than their co-workers, and are often called upon to shoulder even more of the workload when times get tough. One of the top mistakes managers make in talent retention is assuming that your star performers will be willing to share the pain during financially challenging times. If their efforts go unnoticed or are taken for granted, they'll start looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Recognition and rewards can help to overcome this problem, but it's important to understand how different methodologies impact employee motivation. An "employee of the month" award or a year-end bonus is not going to keep your best employees on the payroll. In fact, it could easily backfire.

Recognition needs to be frequent, tied to actions, and culturally aligned to be meaningful.

Karie Willyerd mentioned in her recent HBR article "What High Performers Want at Work" that:

"Tenure-based or compensation strategies with little differentiation between high and low performers are likely to alienate your high performers the most."

3. They're not as engaged as you think they are

You may think your star performers are the most engaged; however, morale and engagement can fall among top performers, too. A 2009 Corporate Executive Board survey found that one out of three emerging stars felt disengaged from their companies. Another one in three "high potential" employees reported not putting all of his or her effort into the job. Twenty-five percent felt that they'll be looking for another job within the year.

How do you keep them engaged? Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt shared the secret in their Harvard Business Review article, "How to Keep Your Top Talent":

"It may seem obvious, but the solution is for senior management to double (or even triple) its efforts to keep young stars engaged. That means recognizing them early and often, explicitly linking their individual goals to corporate ones, and letting them help solve the company’s biggest problems."

4. Their opportunities are limited at work

There's a tendency for business unit managers to want to keep their best performers to themselves. This is understandable, but it can also limit opportunities for employees that want to grow and develop professionally.

The development of top performers should be a major goal for leadership. It's critical that their coaching, training, and leadership opportunities align with their current abilities and future plans. Encouraging and supporting growth  and recognizing achievements along the way — it's a win-win.

It helps to develop future leaders, increases engagement and satisfaction, and shows your top performers how much you value them. It could also make the difference between a star employee staying with your company or seeking opportunities elsewhere.

5. Their higher productivity goes unrecognized

According to the Harvard Business Review, top performers can deliver 400 percent more productivity than average performers. That's a lot of productivity for one person, and your top performers are well aware of how much more work they're doing than everyone else. Are you?

Imagine doing four or five times more work than the rest of the team, at great personal sacrifice, but no one seems to notice. Even worse, your slacker co-worker just received a $100 bonus simply because her name was pulled out of a hat as "employee of the month." Would you continue putting for the effort if your above-and-beyond work continued to go unrecognized?

High performers are driven to excel, but they want to be recognized. If they aren't recognized, they'll excel in another organization.

6. They're not getting the feedback they crave

In addition to wanting to be recognized for their outstanding contributions, top performers want feedback. While no one really craves negative feedback, your star performers want to know what they can do differently or better — and they definitely appreciate positive feedback.

In addition to wanting feedback, they want it regularly. Most employees resent having to wait a year or more for a performance review that may focus on no-longer relevant issues, and your top performers are no different.

To avoid this problem, consider ditching the annual review in favor of frequent and spontaneous feedback.

Be generous with praise, and merit-based rewards.

These are just a few ways you can work to keep your top performers happy, and keep them on your payroll. It's important to understand that although these tips are effective in a general sense, the better you understand your employees, the better you'll be able to zero in on the areas that will have the greatest impact.

Need some more ideas on keeping your top performers on the team?

Download the Motivation Manual

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.