When the world learned that rock legend Tom Petty had passed suddenly from a heart attack last week, social media and the media quickly filled up with emotional tributes to the man's life and music. And such is as it should be. If you're of a particular generation, Petty's hits probably provided an essential part of the soundtrack to some of your most cherished memories.
What could this outpouring of respect and admiration for one of the best musicians of his generation possibly have to teach leaders? On recruiting blog Fistful of Talent HR pro Dawn Hurke points out an important truth about all the appreciation -- it was too late.
Nice guys often don't get the recognition they deserve.
Petty, she notes, was a celebrated musician in his lifetime, but he was much more celebrated after his death. And that's not just because of the usual human tendency to speak fondly of the departed. Instead, it's an example of another very human tendency leaders need to guard against -- we often forget to properly appreciate low-drama, super high achievers until after they've left us.
"Problem is, for most people, the greatness of Tom Petty seemed to wash over all of us in retrospect. He was one of the greats who was taken for granted," she claims. Sure he played the Super Bowl and joined other legends in the Traveling Wilburys, but most of us, despite loving Petty's music and respecting him immensely as a performer, rarely thought about him when he was alive. Why? Burke offers a list of reasons:
He was consistently great. He never had a slump he had to recover from.
He didn't create drama. There was no scandal for inquiring minds to know.
He was, get this, loyal to his band. He had the same band for 40 years despite jerks in suits telling him to go solo. When he did do a solo project, guess who played on the album? HIS BAND.
He overcame hardships in life with dignity. He had a father who beat him and a heroin addiction he kicked. But he handled his s--t and still got the job done.
He was a nice guy.
"This happens a lot," she adds. And as it is in the realm of music, it often is in the realm of the office. That low-key, always-on, super-skilled guy on your team probably adds more value than anyone but gets far less praise and attention than more volatile or less reliable performers.
The science of the under-appreciated high performer
Burke isn't the only one to notice that being dependable actually has big downsides. A host of scientific studies demonstrate that being low drama often means you get saddled with more work and higher expectations despite also receiving less appreciation for your accomplishments. Annoyingly, science even shows that highly dependable employees tend to be perceived as putting in less effort simply because they don't make a show of their struggles and achievements.
But while colleagues sometimes fail to appreciate the efforts of stable high performers, star employees themselves know how hard they work. So beware, warns Burke. If you treat your drama-free stars the way many of us treated Petty -- expecting them to be there performing fantastically whenever you happen to remember to tune in -- you may be in for a rude awakening.
"We are shocked, unprepared and in disbelief when those great performers leave us. At work, we focus on drama and forget the great. We spend time teaching under-performers, and overlook throwing some 'new skills' love to the quiet and consistent overachiever. We assume if the overachiever doesn't complain, they are happy. Then, when they are gone, the hole they leave is vast," she writes.
So maybe today is the day to spend a little time and effort appreciating and nurturing your best, most dependable employees. Do it now because sooner than you think it might be too late.