Three Reasons Why High Performers Quit

I've watched videos and read articles where you hear things like t-shirts, free beer, and other dynamics are what keep employees – because of a sense of belonging and suggestions that a company cares.

T-shirts and beer are great. But research, actual studies, suggest that high performers quit for reasons beyond t-shirts and beer. So I thought I would share with you some of the insights I've learned over the last two decades, reinforced by the research.

High performers actually are motivated by money. Just not how you think.

One interesting study invited folks to pick from two scenarios:

  • A yearly salary of $120,000 when those around them made $150,000.
  • A yearly salary of $80,000 when those around them made $60,000.

A majority of the folks chose the second scenario. When people evaluate compensation, it's often in the context of what it will do for them, not just what it will buy.

High performers, in a study done by Oxford and SAP, marked compensation and bonuses as critical components of keeping them engaged at a company.

But not just because of the amount.

What motivates a high performer is the recognition that comes with excellent compensation and a bonus that aligns the value delivered by a high performer with the value a company receives.

In other words, if you bring a great deal of value to your business and they don't demonstrate a recognition of that fact (by making sure you partake in the proceeds), you're likely to feel slighted (as a high performer) and go somewhere where they will value.

In essence, money talks.

High performers love accountability. For everyone.

One of the ways I share this with my staff is to explain how things worked in the very old days when Rome was conquering the planet. Roman soldiers would have shields that would have a loop on one side and a hook on the other. This enabled soldiers to link up together.

The benefit of this approach was that when you moved forward, together as a team, you didn't have to worry that you'd be out of sync with your army. You all moved together, at once, linked by your shields.

High performers want to look left and right and know that they're not the only ones carrying the heavy load. They don't mind being accountable for their own growth and for their own efforts, but they don't want to have to carry someone else's load. Not consistently.

How many companies have you been in, where everyone knows who the weak link is, and yet no one does anything about it because clearly management doesn't have a clue and isn't willing to do something about it?

High performers simply vote with their feet. If the people around them aren't high performers, and if their team leaders and management don't seem to care, then they simply walk.

Performance over Procedure

One study published in 2012 looked at all sorts of people in a variety of roles. They broke out the high performers from regular and low performers. In doing so, they were looking to see if the distribution of high performers to the rest was the normal bell curve we always assume and talk about.

You know, every company has a small number of really high performers, a lot of folks in the middle and a few at the other end.

Five studies and hundreds of thousands of data points later, they discovered that the curve wasn't our normal standard distribution.

High performers clearly have some sort of radar and clump together in some companies and completely take off from others.


One reason has to do with cultures that have a lot of policy and procedure in place. Now, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with rules.

But if a culture puts rules above high performers getting their work done, it's a place that won't likely keep those high performers.

I once worked at a company where software developers could get books purchased for them (this was before developers just looked things up on Google). So if they wanted to learn something, they would go find the book, then fill out a form, then send it to their supervisor, who would send it to purchasing, who would follow up with questions, and then get answers, and then order the book, and then get it and tag it, and then deliver it to the developer.

As you can imagine, it took months to make things to happen. And high performers see what's happening.

The process was created to solve a problem that happened rarely but was real. But to protect from the 1% case, 99% of the people were burdened by extra process.

As you can imagine, most of us took off from that place – happy to go to places where we could just buy a book and bring in a receipt.

Three Reasons why High Performers Quit

  • Their value isn't recognized
  • There's a lack of accountability that removes poor performers from around them
  • Proper procedure is more valuable than high performance

So let me ask you a question. Are you creating a culture where high performers can thrive?

If you want to learn more about high performance cultures, check out my eBook on the subject.