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Top 3 ways to engage and retain high-performing employees

High-performing employees represent the genuinely exceptional members of your organization. What qualifies someone as a “high performer” ranges from company to company, but most definitions recognize these employees’ high level of effort and disproportionate impact. They are often pinpointed as the most invaluable and hard-to-replace members of a company, with one study finding that the top 1% of workers accounts for a whopping 10% of an organization’s output, and the top 5% accounts for 25%.

Given all this, there’s no question that engaging and retaining your high-performing employees is crucial – which is exactly why Culture Amp’s people science team chose this focus for the first part of our new research series exploring the relationship between employee engagement and performance.

Our methodology

In our research, we standardized the rating scales of 741 companies and over 200,000 employees. Employees who were defined and rated by their manager and peers as being in that organization’s top performance bucket make up the “high performers” group. We systematically removed any organizations that appeared to have leniency bias (e.g., more than 20% of their company in their top performance bucket) to ensure we are truly looking at the highest performers.

Depending on the organization, high-performing employees make up between 0 and 20% of an organization, with the median being 8%.

Distribution of performance types

By analyzing the engagement scores of these employees, we were able to identify the top three actions that can help you engage and retain your high-performing employees.

To learn more about our methodology, read the first part of the series, “Exploring the relationship between engagement and performance.

How to engage and retain your high-performing employees

First, let’s start with a refresher on engagement. Culture Amp defines engagement as the level of enthusiasm, connection, and commitment an employee has towards their organization.

We assess engagement by asking employees how strongly they agree with five statements that fall into three subfactors.

  1. Motivation: “[Company] motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere”
  2. Advocacy: ”I am proud to work for [Company]” and “I would recommend [Company] as a great place to work”
  3. Commitment: “I rarely think about looking for a job at another company” and “I see myself still working at [Company] in two years’ time”

To identify what drives each of these, we look at the correlation between other survey questions and these engagement subfactors. The correlation ranges from -1 to +1, and in survey research, a correlation score above 0.5 is generally considered “strongly correlated.”

According to our research, the factors that drive motivation, advocacy, and commitment for high-performing employees are distinct from the other performance buckets. We found that high-performing employees are:

  • Uniquely motivated by constructive feedback
  • Most likely to advocate for their company if they agree with and approve of performance management practices
  • More likely to commit for the long run if they have resources for dealing with stress

Below, we’ll go into each of these areas in more detail and share people science-backed tips on how you can take action.

1. High performers are uniquely motivated by constructive feedback

While all employees find belonging and career development motivating, constructive feedback was uniquely motivating for high performers.

What high performing employees find motivating

This suggests that high-performing employees, more than other performance buckets, actively desire feedback that will enable them to continue to improve. They are open and excited to hear how they can be better, and exactly where they should focus to create the most progress in the future. This trait has likely helped them reach, cultivate, and maintain a high standard of performance.

How to take action

To engage and retain these high performers, you’ll want to focus on creating a culture of feedback. However, be very careful and intentional because if this “culture of feedback” is only done halfway, you’ll end up creating a company where praise is the main type of feedback. This will be exceptionally frustrating for your high-performing employees, who seek opportunities to genuinely grow and improve.

Here are some ways you can create a genuine culture of feedback:

  • Educate and train employees on giving and receiving constructive feedback. Help them learn how to give constructive feedback that is motivating and receive constructive feedback with a growth mindset. It may be uncomfortable at first, but with practice, constructive feedback will come more naturally to your employees.
  • Ensure that your “culture of feedback” is truly for developmental purposes only. If constructive feedback becomes a factor in employees’ performance ratings, employees will become resistant and less accepting of giving and receiving this type of feedback.

2. High-performing employees advocate for companies with quality performance management processes

Another important aspect of an employee’s level of engagement is their willingness to advocate for the company.

Our people scientists found that while all employees consider leadership an important factor in how likely they are to feel proud of their company and to recommend their company to friends, the most important factor for high performers is the performance management process itself. Specifically, they care that the process focuses on improvement, standards are consistently applied, and bias is minimized.

What drives high performers to recommend and take pride in their organization

While performance management has a rather negative reputation, our data suggests that when done right, it can be an effective driver in engaging and retaining high-performing employees, who have an outsized impact on their organization. Many high performers want to be accurately recognized for their efforts and strong results, and the performance management process is the mechanism for receiving that recognition. Accordingly, high performers will only encourage their friends to join their company if they believe their friends will be fairly and appropriately assessed and recognized.

How to take action:

Scrutinize your performance management process on the following:

Taken together, these first two findings demonstrate that high performers demand a high performance culture focused on continuous constructive feedback and improvement and measurement processes that fairly and consistently differentiate performance.

3. High performers need additional support to commit for the long haul

While role fit and career opportunities are important for all employees, high-performing employees need sufficient resources for getting support and coping with stress to truly commit to their organization.

What drives commitment among high performing employees

This makes sense. Maintaining a standard of exceptionally high performance is often draining. When support and resources are lacking, this can translate to lower performance ratings in future cycles – a reality reflected in the graph below. As you can see, high-performing employees are most likely to have their performance ratings decline within one year, whereas solid and good performers are most likely to maintain the same score.

How performance ratings change after 1 year for different performance types

This could also be because high-performing employees have habits that are unsustainable. While they score the lowest on work-life balance questions (e.g., being able to accomplish all they need to during normal working hours), they are most likely to say they are energized by the pace of work! While this may be true for high performers in the short term, without additional support, they will almost inevitably burn themselves out.

High performing employees have unsustainable work habits

How to take action: If you want your high-performing employees to stay high-performing and/or don’t want them to overwork themselves to the point of leaving your company, you need to provide the right support and resources to help high performers manage their stress and workload.

For example, make sure that managers regularly check in on the wellbeing of their employees during 1-on-1’s meetings, asking questions such as “How are your work relationships going?” and “Are there any burdens or blocks that I can help you with?” While asking about wellbeing is important for all employees, it’s especially important for high-performing employees to continue performing to the same standard.

Focus on what matters the most to your high performers

According to our data, what most high-performing employees value is a high performance culture that focuses on providing constructive feedback and upholding high standards of performance. We also found that staying a high-performing employee is difficult, which means that your high performers require additional support from the company to commit to for years to come.

If you want to learn more about engaging and retaining your people, check out our webinar, "How to engage, retain, and multiply your high-performing employees." Get a deep dive into our findings and actionable ideas for improving your performance management process with Kenneth Matos, Global Director of People Science at Culture Amp, and Liz Culhane, Senior People Scientist.

Illustration of a hand reaching for a heart in a circle amidst floating brightly coloured shapes

Engage, retain, and multiply your high-performing employees

Learn how to hang on to your best employees – and how to turn more of your current employees into high performers.

Watch the webinar

Read the rest of the series:

Fresia Jackson

Fresia Jackson

Lead Research People Scientist, Culture Amp

Contributor - Kelly Luc

Kelly Luc

Senior Content Marketing Manager, Culture Amp

What’s next

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