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Exceptional & Extraordinary Employees – Don’t Burn Them Out

Are HR professionals relying so much on top talent that they risk increasing the odds that they burnout?

Every organization has employees who stand out for one reason or another. They often include your superstars or high achievers. Managers will often turn to these exceptional employees when there’s a special project or deliverable to be completed because, after all, they never let you down.

It’s understandable to feel this way. The person who did such an excellent job on the last special assignment is the first one to come to mind. But it is more complicated than that, so let’s break it down.


Before you assign the work to one of your star staff members, ask yourself the following:

  • How will asking them to take on this new challenge effect their current workload? If they are your high achievers, odds are they already have a large number of deliverables. Will taking on this new work interfere with completion of their current assignments?
  • One of the challenges of being a manager is to support your staff members so they can have some balance in their lives. If you ask a high achiever to take on more work, what will it do to their work-life balance?
  • Will taking on this additional assignment require them to work additional hours which may result in burnout?
  • Do you intend to compensate them for this additional work, or are you expecting them to add work to their already full plate?
  • Is there something, other than pleasing you—such as a learning experience or visibility in the organization—in this for them?
  • Think about others on the team. When you always give the extra assignments to your high achievers, are you doing others a disservice?

The Diversity Dilemma

There is another group of employees, extraordinary employees, that may also be overtaxed. They are extraordinary because they are those individuals you’ve hired from underrepresented groups: black, indigenous, other people of color (BIPOC) and women. The organization has done a good job expanding its diversity representation, so it continues doing what’s working: attending hiring events, such as job fairs, and expect these employees to represent the organization at them. If that’s the case, consider the possible message you may be sending to them:

  • They are tokens (a word we’re not crazy about in this context) and;
  • Your primary or only concern is showcasing your diverse workforce—or your perception of diversity.

What’s missing? If you said the focus is on diversity to the exclusion of equity and inclusion (the other two components of DEI), you’re right. What is this organization doing to make people feel a sense of belonging?

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and author, coined the phrase “team psychological safety,” which means a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes—all without fear of negative consequences. When it’s present in the workplace, psychological safety results in employees who are more engaged and motivated, better decision-making because a more diverse range of perspectives are being heard, and a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Psychological safety sounds like an important ingredient of inclusion and belonging.

Employee Well-Being

Mention employee well-being and thoughts often turn to physical fitness and mindfulness. But it’s more complicated than that. According to Marcus Erb from Great Places to Work, by creating a climate of mental support, purpose, financial health, and meaningful connections, business leaders can provide a foundation for positive well-being that allows employees to flourish.

Aligning individuals’ roles with the organization’s mission, or identifying tasks as critical, can foster a sense of purpose or fulfillment. A great employee experience can be achieved with meaningful and caring relationships among team members and leaders. Employee well-being contributes to psychological safety and teamwork, and fosters a sense of belonging.

What’s a manager to do? The following are some tips to help you avoid burning out not only your exceptional and extraordinary employees, but all the members of your team:

  • Be aware. According to Greg Barnett of The Predictive Index, people bring their whole self to work—their unique personalities, preferences, and work styles. Build self-awareness of your team by learning how they work best, how they like to communicate, and how they like to be recognized. Remember that you are also part of the team, so be sure to share as well.
  • Look at additional team members who could benefit from this opportunity to work on a special project or assignment. You may need to spend more time with them to get the job done, but it will be time well spent. They will develop new skills and abilities, grow in their value to your organization, and you will have more individuals to to whom you can turn. If you don’t allow people to grow, they are going to leave.
  • Give your employees permission to say no to a special assignment. Be clear when offering a new project that you want them to consider their current workload. If they know that they don’t have the bandwidth to take on the new work and complete their current deliverables, you want them to be honest with you. If they say, “This isn’t the right time for me to take this on because I’m already working at full capacity,” it should not be perceived as a negative. Their honesty should be appreciated. This is psychological safety in action.

If you look at your entire team—their individual abilities and their capacity for additional work at any given point in time—when assigning new or special projects, the result will be a win-win for all; namely, for you, for the team as a whole and individually, and for the organization.

By Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell

Originally posted on HR Exchange Network