Prevent your top performers to destroy shareholders’ value


Didier Marlier

April 22, 2016

From Disruption to Engagement

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Your top performers probably show great results and contrast strongly with the rest of your team. But what if I promised you to increase by 260% the performance of your average subordinates and showed that your highest source of shareholder value destruction are your top performers?

This is what Jim Tamm, a now retired Senior Administrative Law Judge for the State of California for 25 years explains in this recent TED talk:

 Green chicken or red chicken? Who are your top performers? Jim builds on a fascinating study done at Purdue University about collaborative (which he calls green) and aggressive/territorial chickens (which he calls red):

  • By the start of the study, red chickens appeared to deliver better results than the green ones (measured by how many eggs they laid). This is business as usual for many of us: top performers are often prima donnas, their social skills are not necessarily used with their peers but rather with their clients, they are a bit “difficult” but we close our eyes and forgive them. They are difficult but look at their amazing results!
  • When studied closer by Purdue Genetics Team though, the explanation of why the red chickens performed better came as a shock: They were destroying the green chickens’ performance, by poking their eggs and attacking them! Mmh… Sounds familiar? Do some of your top performers destabilize, unsettle, attack, ridicule, snob, ignore or bad mouth some of their colleagues? But of course this is hardly our job to care of that. At the price those people are paid, and at their level of maturity, they should be able to sort it out between them. And, as long as it doesn’t reach unethical levels why should you bother? Are you sure this is the best way?
  • So, the Purdue team decided to separate the green from the red chickens. What happened? The picture of the Green vs Red chickens speaks by itself! But one number speaks by itself: the performance of the green chickens grew by 260%! Does that happen with your team?
  • Does this mean that we should give up on our “red performers”? Jim Tamm challenges that view. For him, red chickens do not lack competences (of course), they lack behavioural skills.

And the critical skill that Jim Tamm refers to is our awareness of our defence mechanisms. I worked with a team in the US, on that topic and the result was impressive. It allowed every participant to understand their own triggers and reactions and provided others with a reading code to interpret them. My challenge to them was to reflect and share about:

  • What triggers your defence mechanism?
  • How does it manifest itself?
  • What can my partners do to bring me back to a more centred attitude?

For illustration purposes, let me share something about myself: I have a strong defence mechanism that comes from my youth: An inferiority complex which makes me become nervous when I sense that I may be wrong (especially in public) during a discussion. My “fear devil” starts to whisper to my ear: “Will they still respect you? What will they think about you if you “lose” your battle of words? Were you unprepared?” How do I react to that? I will first try seduction, then collusion (pretending to agree but getting back the next day for a private discussion with the person) and if that doesn’t work, I will try aggression. Helping me out of the hole I dug for myself, by asking me open, non-directed and benevolent questions will get me back on the rationale path. This hopefully provides you with an understanding of why I sometimes block during a discussion or behave in a less useful way than I should. It also helps me grow my own awareness about this mechanism (and others) which trigger my defence and an unhelpful behaviour from my part.

So what will you do with your red chicken? Will you take a courageous stand like several sports coaches and decide to leave your best scorer at home because he has such a negative impact on your team or will you pretend you don’t see and hope that time will sort the problems between the top scorer and their victims? Jim Tamm suggests another way, work with your red chicken and help them acquire the social skills that they obviously miss.

Enjoy your Leadership Journey


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