Rewarding top performers

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul Willingham
  • 22nd Medical Support Squadron
Air Force people are busier than ever, we've been engaged in worldwide operations for more than a decade and we will continue to experience a high operations tempo for the foreseeable future.

We're short on people and the Air Force has refocused manning to support undermanned specialties and emerging missions.

At no time, that I can recall, has it been more challenging or important for supervisors to frequently check the balance between your mission, your family, yourself and your people.

The people's aspect is unique to those with the privilege of supervisory duties, and our approach to taking care of people requires frequent balance checks as well.

As a rite of passage, new supervisors are often told by those that have gone before us, that "you'll spend 80 percent of your time on 20 percent of your people."

What do they mean by that? Will I spend most of my time dealing with a small number of bad actors such as those with significant performance or disciplinary issues? Or will I spend most of my time mentoring, growing and guiding the careers of those that are truly among the best in our Air Force?

While supervisory duties require us to address poor performance issues and to ensure good order and discipline, supervisors cannot let their "people time" be consumed by this group.

Simply put, we cannot let our top performers feel neglected; former General Electric chief executive officer Jack Welch takes it a step further by saying, "You should take the top 20 percent of your employees and make them feel loved."

Does this mean that top performers are a supervisor's sole focus? Absolutely not, we still have an opportunity and responsibility to provide frequent, timely and candid feedback to all employees; this feedback explains what they must do to improve performance.

Leaders should also seize the opportunity to evaluate how their rewards system operates; does it truly reward the overachievers and motivate others to improve their own performance?

Tangible ways of taking care of the top tier include quarterly and annual awards programs, stripes for exceptional performers, quality step increases for civilians, decorations for superior sustained performance, and goal days for the best of the best, we have many tools at our disposal.

We must be vigilant though, to ensure we reserve these rewards for Airmen who truly represent the gold standard. Nominating someone for an award just to "spread the wealth" or awarding a medal to someone that "showed up to the game, but didn't play" have an exponentially opposite effect. It serves to cheapen the reward for all, making it a non-motivator.

Speaking of non-motivators, have you heard the phrase; "No good deed goes unpunished" uttered by your top tier? If so, that's a warning flag. Most supervisors admit that when they need to get a job done, they go to the Airmen they can count on.

But if left unchecked, this tendency can push top performers toward frustration and burnout, especially if they feel others in their group don't work as hard and still get rewarded. The next project or tasking could be the perfect opportunity that someone gunning for the top tier is looking for.

The bottom line is for supervisors to periodically sound check how we reward top performers, validate you've got it in balance and that your focus is squarely on the top tier and those that are working hard to get there.