why are top performers often the most overlooked?

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It was parent-teacher conference season once again. After waiting in line for a while and scanning his daughter’s report card, Todd was eager to talk to Lila’s teacher about her performance in math class. It wasn’t that his daughter was struggling—in fact, she was excelling academically—but for some reason, she just wasn’t very enthusiastic about the class. It was more than just the typical sixth-graders-hate-math mentality, too. Lila just couldn’t muster any excitement about even being in this teacher’s classroom. And it perplexed Todd because Lila usually loved school.

The teacher had a totally different perspective, however. She loved Lila. In fact, she said to Todd, Lila was so great in class, that she didn’t have to pay any attention to her—Lila didn’t even need it. Lila behaved well no matter what, so the teacher just left her to her own devices. And just looking at Lila’s report card, you’d think that was working out great. But her attitude about math class told a whole different story.

That’s when a lightbulb went off for Todd, and Lila’s lack of enthusiasm all of a sudden made sense. What the teacher was describing was the zero-defect mentality—the idea that when things are going well, there’s no need for guidance, support, or feedback. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well—no.

The zero-defect mentality plagues our workplaces, too. It’s part of the reason why 51% of Americans are looking for new jobs. It’s behind the popular saying “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” It’s also why even top companies struggle to retain their best talent and are always trying to come up with new ways to attract and engage people who do great work. The zero-defect mentality can even be blamed for lagging productivity and disengagement. After all, employees of every age and industry self-report that the best way to motivate them is to sincerely show appreciation for work well done. And when top players who are smart, capable, and driven get left out of the positive-feedback loop, they lose steam.

If you’re a top performer, you probably know from experience that great employees are often the most overlooked. They’re the people who take initiative, get things done on time, and produce quality work day in and day out, but they fly under the radar. Their ideas move the needle. People can depend on them. But the team rarely stops to recognize how crucial their contributions are to bottom-line results and the team dynamic. Instead, top performers are just expected to keep delivering. And because they’re great employees, they usually do. They want to make a difference, they care about the mission, and they’re genuinely fulfilled by doing great work.

That is, until they break. Because even people who are intrinsically motivated and love their jobs can’t carry on forever without positive feedback. Appreciation truly makes the world go round. When done right, it can boost productivity and innovation. It brings teams together and builds trust and respect. Saying a simple thank-you is the best motivator that drives new, groundbreaking solutions.

So if you’re not in the habit of recognizing top performers you work with—if they’re flying under the radar like Lila in math class—make a positive change. Relearn the basics of appreciation. Say thank you in a sincere, occasion-appropriate manner. Include your team to throw a big celebration or make it a one-on-one conversation. Deliver recognition as soon as possible when the great employees pull off awesome accomplishments. And encourage everyone around you to make appreciation a priority. It won’t just improve the lives of your top players—it’ll transform your whole dynamic.

And finally, think about the kind of coworker, manager, and leader you want to be. Lila, on the drive home from parent-teacher conferences, described her teacher to Todd as someone who “spends most of her time making sure the bad kids aren’t goofing off.” Do you want to be the boss who only babysits the low performers? Do you want to be the kind of coworker who is constantly frustrated at work because others aren’t reaching their potential? Or do you want to be the leader or coworker who empowers great work in others? It’s your choice—and appreciation is your answer.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

By david sturt and todd nordstrom
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