What High Performers Want

What High Performers Want

Beginning in the mid-1990s, companies began competing intensely in the “War for Talent.” Driven by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, more and more organizations bought into the idea that in order to win against competitors, they first needed to win the competition for talent. And so, they began ramping up compensation plans and adding new benefits packages, all with the intention of finding and keeping top talent.

Decades—and billions of dollars in compensation packages—later, most organizations finally discovered the truth. Despite spending ever-increasing amounts of money on high performers, high performers weren’t really in it for the money.

And those who were lured in by high compensation weren’t really high performers.

In this article, we’ll outline some of the lessons learned about what actually attracts high performers to work on a team—and what keeps them engaged once they’re on board.

They Want To Be Heard

The first thing high performers want is to be heard. They want their ideas listened to, considered, and implemented—or if not implemented then they want to know (and learn from) why a different option was chosen. They want autonomy in their work in order to engage their knowledge, skills, and abilities in the way they’ve learned over time is the best course of action. They don’t want to be micromanaged.

That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be told what to work on—but they don’t want to be told how to work on it and measured against how well they follow instructions. Instead, they want to know the objective and then be measured for delivering results, with them deciding how those results are delivered.

They Want To Work With Peers

The second thing high performers want is to work with peers. Specifically, peers meaning other high performers or other team members who want to achieve to the same degree that they do. High performers figured out what later research would go one to prove: that their ability to turn skills into performance was highly dependent on the team that they were on. And over time, they’ve learned to ask more and more questions about the team that they’re joining.

This doesn’t mean they demand to be on a team of equals, in fact sometimes that can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, it most often means that they want to be on a team of equally committed individuals and not a team of loafers who expect them to carry the load for everyone.

They Want To Be Developed

The third thing high performers want is to be developed. They want to join an organization that won’t just harness their skills but will make them even better. High performers know that they stay most engaged in the work at hand when the challenges ahead of them rise over time. Otherwise, bringing the same skills to the same tasks gets boring quickly and makes it more likely that they look for new challenges somewhere else.

This doesn’t mean that the organization needs a robust training and development system, although that would certainly help. Instead, it means that team leaders need to take growth and development conversations with high performers seriously and work to get them access to that training and development or find new challenges for them.

They Want To Be Praised

The final thing that high performers want is to be praised. They want recognition, not just compensation. High performing talent—and really all talent—wants to be told their efforts are valuable and meaningful. They want to do work that matters, and work for leaders who tell them they matter.

This doesn’t mean formal one-on-one check-ins or the annual performance review. And it doesn’t mean a quick and stiff “thank you” at the end of a project. Instead, it means leaders taking the time to point out a specific behavior observed and praising the effort behind it and the contribution it makes to the team’s success. If you don’t take the time to notice people’s contribution, you’ll notice they start taking that contribution somewhere else.


When you look at these four desires of high performers, you start to see why the compensation strategy fell apart during the war for talent. Compensation might seem like appreciation for a job well done, but it’s insufficient as a motivator. As leadership expert Roger Martin is fond of saying “People want to feel special more than they want to feel compensated.”

In addition, autonomy, growth, and a team of peers makes a job much more meaningful. And when you can create a work environment that provides those three elements, you’ll create an environment that helps everyone—not just high performers—do their best work ever.

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2 Responses to “What High Performers Want”

  1. Nilesh Ukey says:

    Great insights David, though these 4 points mentioned can be a good starting. But with the fierce race to acquire talent, compensation path seems to be one which can be quickly implemented.