Are You a Victim of Performance Punishment?


Ever experience performance punishment? Imagine if Derek Jeter were so valuable to the (then) Greensboro Hornets they would never allow him to progress through the developmental leagues and on to the fabled career in the majors he (and baseball fans around the world!) now enjoys.

Or, what if the Cleveland Cavaliers gave LeBron James the keys to the kingdom to incentivize him to play out his entire career in a secondary media market with a slim chance of ever winning a championship?

Oh wait, we don’t have to imagine that one! After all, that’s precisely why he changed employers as soon as the chance of free agency presented itself.  But this post isn’t about the self-proclaimed “King James”; it’s about a phenomenon known as “performance punishment.”

It happened to LeBron, it has happened to me, and chances are, it has happened to you or someone you know.

What is Performance Punishment?

Simply put, performance punishment is when you perform like a superstar and the so-called reward is to your detriment.

Sometimes performance punishment is subtle. Witness the self-proclaimed King James prior to his move to Florida.

If it’s a “LeBronish” case, performance punishment is when you are too valuable to the organization you’re within your current role, so they prevent you from pursuing other growth opportunities, effectively putting what’s good for the organization ahead of your goals and aspirations.

Now if your employer is top notch, they will ease your pain by throwing money at you or even creating a fancy title for you to sport . . . nearly anything to keep you their version of quiet and contently performing like the superstar they (and you) know you are in your current position. It’s all good until you realize, they have you right where they want you—and they plan to keep you there as long as you’re on the payroll!

And that’s performance punishment in the best case scenario.

The Disadvantages of Being the “Go-To” Person

Sometimes performance punishment is a bit more dubious. In this case, the alleged reward for pulling yet another rabbit out of the proverbial hat is a heightened expectation about your future performance leading to even more work.

Let me give you an example.

You have a major, immovable deadline to meet at work so you stay at the office an extra 4 hours before taking the project home to finish it. You sleep 3 hours, go into work early to polish the presentation and make your boss and your team look awesome to the higher ups.

Your boss and team toast your success later at the staff meeting with a chorus of “atta boys” or “atta girls” and you force a smile through a sigh, looking forward to some quiet time with your pillow as soon as it’s quitting time.

The next week, your boss, faced with another fire drill, makes a b-line to your workstation even though you told him/her you have after work plans that night.  In the months to come, you quickly realize you are now the “go-to” person on the team.

Your reward? More work. More responsibility. More stress. Longer hours. And fewer pats on the back because of your proven ability to “save the day” is now your new normal.

That’s performance punishment. But I digress. . .

So while you work late and get assigned all the missions impossible, your co-workers enjoy a nice balanced work life. They come in at 9:01 am after enjoying a leisurely cup of their morning coffee and then head off to take their kids (imaginary or real) to soccer practice promptly at 4:59 pm at the end of each day.

You, on the other hand, feel like you must come in early and stay late just to keep up with the mountain of work that keeps getting piled on your plate as the result of being one of the team’s top performers.

Adding insult to injury, the one time your co-worker has to work 30 minutes late, you find it impossible to empathize.

Good ‘ol Performance Punishment is at it Again!

Making matters worse, the one time you fail to successfully complete a mission that 007 and MacGyver together couldn’t work their way out of, your boss wants to address it as a performance issue as he/she has “come to expect more of you”.

And sadly, your boss is right.  Your performance IS the issue. But not in a way you could have ever imagined!

That’s performance punishment.

The Cure for Performance Punishment

Let me see. What would the self-proclaimed King James have you do? How about if you relocate to a city by the beach to accept a fantastic new job at a growth-oriented organization with an all-star team of coworkers and produce a TV documentary to announce your Decision to move on as the ultimate resignation letter?

Ok, maybe not (for most of us anyway!) but you can’t blame a girl for dreaming.

What are your dreams, I mean, thoughts? Share them in the comments!


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Liz Nolley Tillman is a marketing communications professional-recently-turned-blogger who has spent over 20 years in Corporate America. Visit On the Hook for her musings and insights on today’s workplace as well as the advertising and marketing industry.
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Discussion

  1. mkafriend on the 24th August

    Great article. Helps you think of how to use your talents more strategically, instead of quickly diving into every project and risking the overachiever’s trap.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Thanks for the note! Am working on a future post regarding the cure for Performance Punishment and Iove the notion of using one’s talents more strategically!

  2. Sandy on the 24th August

    I’m so glad to have a name for this. My problem is, I didn’t even get extra money thrown at me for this. It’s hard for me because I am the only person in my office (a nonprofit), so if the work doesn’t get done, I am the only one held accountable, with not many others to help.

    I’m not sure if it will even work, but I am trying to slowly back down on the extra work I put in, to get back to normal. I anticipate having to defend the “new” amount and quality of work I do.

    • suhail on the 24th August

      going through the same phase as you, and yes, working 12 – 14 hours average and no extra money.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Hi Sandy! You are SO not alone! I wrote this piece based on my own experiences and those of many friends and colleagues who have experienced it in some way. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback and ideas on curing performance punishment which I’m capturing for a future piece. Someone told me sometimes you have to let things fall through the cracks to show others your limits…I struggle with that one because the perfectionist in me won’t give me permission to fail on purpose but I see others do so beautifully without penalty! It’s really hard when you’re on a small team…just hang in there and remember sometimes “all you can do is all you can do”…the work will be there tomorrow!

  3. Neal on the 24th August

    Excellent, excellent article! Sometimes we want to be the superstar employee but it backfires. This performance punishment is a good thing to keep in mind. And it makes perfect sense for an increased performance level to become the norm to a manager and surrounding co-workers.

    I think the real issue is over-working yourself to perform such feats of greatness. I think it’s acceptable to allow this to happen once in a while because of a deadline, but I don’t think a healthy career or work habits should lead a person down a consistent basis of stress and long extra hours just to get a project done.

    My thoughts are: after an employee pulls off a “superman” it’s best to tell the fellow co-workers what it all took to do it. Mention the long extra hours and no sleep – this will give people a sense that you’re in fact human and that this shouldn’t be expected all the time.

    I’ve seen people who are good at keeping just enough work on their plate without allowing others to overload them and still be hailed as the superstar every once in a while. Their excuses aren’t always legitimate, but they’re able to perform without the punishment.

    Excellent article. Oh, I think I said that already.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      GREAT advice Neal!! I’m so glad you liked the piece! And, I don’t mind that you said so already! :-)

  4. fng on the 24th August

    chances are, if you are ‘that guy’, you thrive in that sort of environment and anything less would not bring about satisfacation. unfortunately, such a person does not realize this until they get a break in the action and time to reflect. heavy lies the head that wears the crown. the best remedy is a supportive spouse and the ability to maintain a level of motivation. you have to love what you do.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Excellent point fng, there’s nothing like having a supportive network at home!

  5. suhail on the 24th August

    at present i am going through this stage, and this is not the first time, happening to me, there have been several times, and yes several times i have also felt like a fool, and i strongly agree with fng, as he saids in the comments above, “you have to love what you do.” or you’ll end up like me, cussing the people around you, and cussing the day, you joined the particular organization, cussing your life, stressed, exhausted and burnt out.

    The worst part of performance punishment is, your boss or seniors take you granted, and you get really bad criticism, even things go a little slow or even if its a small error.

    i have been through this, and it sucks, you get demotivated.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Well said suhail…if you love what you do, it doesn’t always feel like work. I’ve also experienced situations in which the stress and unreasonable demands sucked all the joy out of what normally I loved to do. I’ve had to work hard at learning how not to let anyone steal my joy and to set boundaries and to give myself permission to step away every now and then. And when all else fails…knowing when to walk away and start fresh always helps! Good luck and hang in there…positive change will come your way!

  6. Lily@TeamWorkLive on the 25th August

    Very, very interesting article… This really makes me think to my past job and the way that I was treated there. I am right there with ya though girl, a beach and a fun new job is my ultimate goal.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Thanks Lily@TeamWorkLive! Glad you liked the piece! If I find that perfect job at the beach I’ll be sure to let you know! LOL :-)

  7. Stephen Smith on the 25th August

    This was me. Until today. Gave my 2 weeks notice. Gonna jump back in the freelance pool again. So excited & relieved!

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Good for you Stephen!!!! It must feel awesome to have that weight lifted off your shoulders. Wishing you all the best as you start the new chapter in your professional journey!!!

  8. Fazal on the 28th August

    This article is demotivating at so many levels that i don’t know where to begin.

    First off, no boss or employer will ever want to let go someone who is his ‘go-to’ guy. This advantage is what you have which others don’t and hence you can command a better raise, perks and other benefits which others cant. If you’re so smart to be the best employee around, I’m sure you must have the brains to at least prove your worth to the management and get what you want.

    Second, whats the real harm in being the best, till you’re enjoying it? The kind of satisfaction you receive after accomplishing a mission impossible is something which other incompetent guys cant even dream of achieving. Why would you live a life of a mediocre employee cruising your life from 9:00 – 5:00? Not unless you’ve given in to your limitations and accepted that you are a failure and cant be dependent upon. Because once your boss really wants something very bad, and you can’t cause you got to pickup your kid from soccer practice. I’m sure you’ll be the first person on his mind when he has to make the list of potential lay-offs.

    Third, Its not always that bad. Working hard sometimes for the company which is paying you for what you bring to the table is something which people sometimes forget.

    Maybe you can think of writing another one which will list performance benefits.

    Oh wait, i think i already did.

    • Liz Nolley Tillman on the 30th August

      Hi Fazal! The article isn’t about discouraging top performance…quite the opposite actually. Most people who experience performance punishment are indeed top performers like LeBron. The challenge is finding a good fit with an organization that rewards that behavior with growth opportunities and the opportunity for a healthy work life balance….and learning to establish healtier boundaries for oneself if that’s not the case. There’s also a lesson here for employers looking to nurture top talent as opposed to abusing it! The fact is, money is not always the great motivator people think it is (sometimes a work from home day or casual Friday means more if it facilitates work-life balance). So much is written about how to be a good employee that my hope was to shine light on what happens when organizations take star players for granted. It’s easy to understand why LeBron left Cleveland to play with 2 other Allstars and have a chance a winning a championship even if you dislike how he announced his Decision…but when it happens in corporate (or non-profit) America it’s a bit harder to see.

      But you are absolutely right…there’s nothing wrong with being your best! My hope is that it’s with an organization that appreciates it and does its part in motivating and retaining you and other top talent! :-)

  9. Ian Bert Tusil on the 9th September

    This is exactly the reason why I stopped working in a cubicle three years ago. But I guess, it’s just a matter of managing the expectations of the bosses. Perhaps, you also need to learn to just say NO.

    There are lots of bosses that are fond of giving compliments, appreciations and whatnot to motivate people. Words like “Great Job”, “Nice Work, keep it up”, “You’re the man”, etc, sounds crap to me if the work load goes up but the rate doesn’t.

    I also think performance and compensation should go together. Compensation may not just be monetary, perhaps a day-off?, or yeah (Work from the beach) That’d be awesome.

  10. abdellah boumzour on the 16th September

    Thanks guys for every single words,it is interesting indeed
    I can say one small quote: PROPER PREPARATION PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE.
    THEN WE CAN AVOID REPETITIVE PUNISHEMENT

  11. Leon Oscar Kidando on the 1st December

    Great article. Really great article

  12. Dan on the 18th March

    Wrong!
    Lebron James is the wrong example to use… Lebron had plenty of opportunities to win championships, but he doesn’t work well under pressure. That’s his own fault, not a result of performance punishment. To say that he had no chance to win a championship is to say that he does have a chance in Miami, where he will not have any significant contributions in the play offs if Miami does win, which means he will be handed a championship whereas he has not earned it, but his teammates did. That’s not performance punishment in the least bit.

  13. carol on the 7th October

    This is exactly what has happened to me. Every word. Please, what is the cure?

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