As a bar raiser and senior leader at Amazon, I spent a lot of time interviewing managers. One of my favorite questions was "How do you manage top performers differently than bottom performers?" As much as people dislike the idea of being categorized or having their performance evaluated, I think recognizing the difference between people's performance (and how you should react) is a critical element of management.

When interviewees answer this question, the result is telling in a couple ways.

Do they have empathy for bottom performers? Some people happily report that they kick out bottom performers as fast as possible, with disparaging remarks about how they dislike worthless employees. That's an easy not inclined vote. You can maintain a high bar without being a jerk about it.

Do they recognize that different employees need different types of guidance? You can't manage everyone the same way. Individuals are motivated differently and need different communication styles. People who are already successful need a different type of guidance than people who need help to become successful. If you try to manage everyone the same way, you're condemned to mediocrity.

Categorizing people?! But they're individuals!

Humans excel at recognizing and replicating patterns. Of course every individual is different, but we're also shockingly similar. Stereotypes exist for a reason. If you have an introvert software engineering friend, I'd bet $5 that they've read Ender's Game. If you can recognize patterns in other people's behaviors, you can predict how to manage them better.

There are an infinite number of patterns to recognize in employees. If you don't recognize patterns of behavior, you need to solve each problem as if it was seen for the first time. That takes extra mental effort. It makes you react slower. It makes you more likely to make mistakes.

If instead you recognize that stereotypes can be useful, you can leverage these patterns to recognize what has worked before, and what hasn't. You can say "Oh, I think I know what to do here", and react decisively. The below are a few patterns to think about. I'm sure you know more.

Pattern A: Clearly under their proper level

I remember a college hire software engineer, who a couple months out of college collected product managers and engineers into a room to change the direction of one of our projects. She asked our user research team to confirm some assumptions, and then gave a short presentation to our VPs regarding our new plans. It was the type of communication, leadership, and judgement of someone at least two levels higher. It blew us all out of the water.

When someone's performance is above all expectations, they need to be handled differently. Everyone loves these types of employees, but too often they're viewed as a gift, rather than a responsibility.

What do they need now?

  • Promotion / role change. Level and title influence compensation, opportunities and respect at companies. A manager's top priority is getting this employee's job fixed to properly represent their abilities. Not someday, but now.
  • Challenge. If you're at the wrong level for your job, you're less likely to be challenged. Everyone needs to be stretched and encounter failure. It's how you continue to grow. It's our job to help people find their limitations.

Personal Anecdote - I once joined a team, and in the first hours I encountered an engineer who struck me as at least a level higher. I knew the promotion cycle was closing the next day. After some quick questioning of the principal engineers in the organization, I decided we needed to promote her immediately. Usually a promotion document would take a few weeks (at least). I spent that day and evening writing an emergency promotion document, getting the required peer feedback, and got it approved the next day. Just in time.