5 Reasons Your Top Employee Isn’t Happy

Not sure why your top performer is unhappy? Check out what the most brilliant (yet difficult) employees hate about company culture.

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This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

There has been a bit of a furor recently as both Apple and Microsoft let go key senior executives (Scott Forstall and Steve Sinofsky, respectively) who were both categorized variously as “abrasive,” “difficult,” and “arrogant.”

In almost every popular account of the firings, the two executives have been painted as “out of control” and having lost the confidence of their peers–to the extent that in each case the CEO (Tim Cook at Apple, Steve Ballmer at Microsoft) had no choice but to reluctantly let them go. “More in sorrow than in anger,” as a number of reports put it.

There’s only one problem with this narrative. It’s so one-sided as to be dangerously naive.

Look, no one with any knowledge of the individuals concerned has demurred with the general perception of Steve Sinofsky and Scott Forstall as being prickly, arrogant, and occasionally insufferable, but look at whom they were working alongside: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Steve Ballmer. None of those men could be described as shrinking violets.

Nor is it the case that these two executives were Johnny-come-latelys who didn’t “fit in.” Sinofsky joined Microsoft as a software design engineer in 1989 (24 years ago!), and Scott Forstall came over from NeXT when it was purchased by Apple in 1997. Both had a sterling record of innovation and execution that ran parallel with their occasional bouts of petulance.

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In my experience, this isn’t a case of time running out for two people who had it coming. It’s clear that both Sinofsky and Forstall had in the past found ways to manage their outbursts that kept them within (barely) acceptable boundaries but that each found the environment within which he was working becoming increasingly intolerable.

In other words, Cook and Ballmer allowed changes to happen in the culture at Apple and Microsoft that eventually pushed their “jerk overachievers” to blow.

It happens all the time. A freewheeling, autocratically managed company has room for (frequently maddening) visionary mavericks until, one day, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, from that point on the organization is in Treadmill and headed toward irrelevance.

Here are the top five reasons high-performing maverick employees go ballistic, how to spot them, and what to do about it:

1. Inconsistent / Frequently Changing Priorities
Why It’s a Problem: Nothing irritates a top performer more than ditch-to-ditch or fad-based management.

How to Spot It: Employees hunkering down every time a new initiative is introduced–glazing over at strategy meetings.

What to Do About It: Set a short-, medium-, and long-term strategy and stick to each for a reasonable period without being distracted by the newest new thing.

2. Condoning Mediocrity
Why It’s a Problem: The No. 1 reason high performers leave organizations in which they are otherwise happy is because of the tolerance of mediocrity.

How to Spot It: Disdain and distance between top performers and others who are not pulling their weight. Dissatisfaction with rewards (compensation, bonuses, awards, etc.) given to others.

What to Do About It: Set high goals for the entire organization and build in both rewards (for success) and consequences (for failure). Apply both consistently and fairly.

3. Round Peg / Square Hole Syndrome
Why It’s a Problem: High performers like to do what they’re good at‚ not be used as stopgaps in some other way. They view themselves as Ferraris and get frustrated if they think they are being used as golf carts.

How to Spot It: Disengagement from their allocated tasks and responsibilities. Lack of follow-up and accountability. General mopiness.

What to Do About It: Review (with them) what you want this person to do. Freshen up job descriptions and reorientate top performers to tasks that only they can do.

4. Underutilization
Why It’s a Problem: Same as above: When you’re a Ferrari (or think you are), you don’t want to spend your time idling at the curb.

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How to Spot It: Freelancing in areas that aren’t their responsibility. Getting under everyone’s feet. Going rogue.

What to Do About It: Have the employee produce a list of what he or she could/should be doing to occupy free time. Review and agree on utilization. Look at your own delegation skills–if you have an underutilized top performer, it’s a sure sign you’re a micromanager who has problems delegating.

5. Playing Favorites
Why It’s a Problem: Top performers not only believe in a meritocracy. It’s their air and water. Start playing favorites and bypassing people despite their results, and your top performers will be out of there before you can say, “Holy second cousin.”

How to Spot It: Your sister Sarah’s son Jimmy seems much happier than your best salesperson.

What to Do About It: If you need to be told, you shouldn’t be managing people.


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