How to Keep Your Star Performers in Trying Times

By Amy Gallo
September 18, 2020

When your company is in a slump, you need to figure out ways to retain your top performers. Your employees are likely looking to you for inspiration and guidance during tough times, and you may have little, or nothing, to offer them in terms of advancement or compensation. Fortunately, as a manager, you have many other options available to motivate your stars and keep them happy. Here are some of the tools you might rely on when budgets are tight:

1. PRAISE FOR GOOD WORK: This is one of the most inexpensive, and unfortunately, underused levers available to managers. Praise can go a long way in demonstrating to your top performers how much you value them. Be sure to express gratitude for work that is above and beyond normal standards. Be specific and tie your praise to a legitimate accomplishment.

2. CHALLENGING PROJECTS AND ASSIGNMENTS: To keep your top performers engaged, provide them with the opportunity to work on new projects or assignments that build their skills and gives them a chance to shine. This might be a team project that brings your star together with other stars from different departments, or a solo project that demonstrates your confidence in her ability. When thinking of projects that you might assign, ask yourself which of your projects are most interesting and engaging to you and think about how you might delegate some of them. Select a tangible project that you know your star can succeed with. Particularly good projects involve interaction with important clients or exposure to senior people in the organization, such as C-level executives or board members. But be careful when assigning these projects: Ensure your employees understand that the assignment is a vote of confidence and an opportunity for them to build additional skills, not a way to overburden them.

3. DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES: There are many inexpensive or free ways to develop skills. You can find your star employee a mentor who is more senior in the organization and perhaps shares her career interests or a similar background. If your company retains coaches for senior executives, consider offering your star a few coaching sessions. You can also contribute to other employees’ development by asking your star to teach a skill that she is particularly good at. This will allow her to serve as a role model while deepening her expertise in the area.

4. NONMONETARY PERKS: Several perks cost little or nothing to provide, such as flexibility, better work-life balance or more autonomy. If your star has a young family, find ways to let her work from home. If she wants to take a class at a local college, give her time off to do so.


When bonuses and raises fail to materialize, top performers are likely to become frustrated. Your role as a manager is to respond to these frustrations. Luckily, making use of the low-cost levers outlined above is a great way to show your stars that you appreciate them, value their work and are invested in their careers.


Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.


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