Load Management – Increasing Top Performer Productivity By Borrowing A Sports Tool (Because an excessive volume of work gets automatically piled on top performers)

The damage caused by excessive workloads is well-known but surprisingly, few proactively manage them.

Yes, it’s common among teams for work to naturally gravitate to top performers because of their track record for getting things done. And as a result, many that assign work to others follow the long-established “busy person rule.” Which is, “If you want a task done, ask a busy person to do it.”

Managers, of course, frequently assign critical work to “their busiest people” because most realize the reason why these employees are so busy. This is undoubtedly because of their virtually unblemished record of getting things done without excuses.

However, there is another side to the story. Not surprisingly, it results from this continuous piling on of work. Over time, most busy top performers will end up being continuously overburdened with work. And that excess workload will often lead to higher error rates and employee stress levels.

And if you wonder why so many top performers will continue to accept an almost unlimited amount of new work without complaining (and some may even volunteer for it). It’s because of the top performer’s inherent pride and professional commitment to the team and the organization. Unfortunately, this excess level of work acceptance may end up actually hurting both the team and the top performer.

Work Overloads, Unfortunately, Have Negative Consequences

This “unmanaged piling on” of work, many of your top performers are likely to become stressed, disengaged, and even burned out. To the point where their capability to do your essential upcoming high priority work should come into question. And some top performers may even suffer from being overburdened to the point where they begin to consider either quiet-quitting or actual quitting.

Fortunately, in sports, their leaders have developed a tool that ensures that their top performers are restricted to only a reasonable volume of mostly high-priority work. This sports tool is known as “load management.”

Two Quick Definitions Of Load Management

The sports definition of load management – is “the process of carefully managing the playing time and workload of athletes in order to reduce the risk of injury and maintain their performance over the course of a season.”

The business definition of load management – is a productivity maximizing process where a manager monitors and then proactively manages the workload of each top performer on their team. Where the workload includes both the volume of work, as well as the percentage of high-priority work that each top performer is expected to do 

Load Management Works In Sports, So Why Not Borrow It

The tendency to overload top players in sports finally ended soon after most professional teams shifted to a data-driven management approach. The new data demonstrated to sports leaders the tremendous damage that overworking a key player could have on both their short and long-term capabilities and performance levels.

And, of course, today, throughout sports, load management has become a common practice. For example, in MLB, the focus includes limiting pitch count, and in the NFL, the focus is on the number of plays that a star can be in. Finally, in the NBA, the focus is on the number of minutes of playing time.

Today’s business managers need to learn what sports leaders knew long ago. And that is… there are numerical limits on the amount of work a top performer can do without damaging their capability for both performing today and completing upcoming critical high-priority work. 

Unfortunately, most current corporate managers pay little or no attention to the workload of top performers. This occurs because most corporations make little effort to measure and report key employee workloads. However, I have found that the real stumbling block to adopting it is that no one in the corporate or consulting environment has yet qualified in dollars the business impacts of failing to monitor and regulate the workload of each top performer. In direct contrast, I have estimated that the typical excessive workload of a top performer will likely cost the organization up to an amount equivalent to this employee’ s annual salary each year!

The Many Benefits Of Using A Load Management Tool

Obviously, this tool wouldn’t have ever become extremely popular in professional sports unless it had been proven to be both easy to use and highly effective. So, if you’re not yet sold on its value. Below is a list of the 10 most impactful benefits that accrue from using this tool, with the highest impact benefits appearing first.

  • A larger proportion of high-priority work will get done faster and better – one aspect of this tool is to ensure that the most high-priority critical work will be assigned to your top performers. And data shows that top performers can produce between 10 and 25 times more than your average performer in the same job. So when top performers do more of the high-priority work, you can be assured that that work will be done faster and better.
  • Your top performers will be fully prepared for upcoming critical projects – one of the most impactful aspects of load management. Ensuring when strategically critical work comes up, your top performers will be fully prepared for it. One proactive action is to provide your top performers with the time and resources required to prepare for it fully. That preparation might include supporting any needed upskilling and temporarily reducing the top performer’s workload so that they will be complete when the critical work begins. Working together, these workload adjustment actions will significantly raise the probability that your upcoming high-priority critical work will be completed on time and under budget.
  • Over the long term, you will experience improved individual and team productivity – your top performers will be more productive because of a better-managed workload. Because now a higher proportion of their workload will be top-priority work. But also because their overall workload will have likely been reduced. So they will experience less stress and exhaustion. Team productivity will also increase because much less of the critical and priority work will now be done by average or lower performers. 
  • The work quality of top performers will be maintained – because there will be less work, as well as less pressure and stress on your top performers. Also, more time will be purposely set aside for employee development and upskilling. Your top performers will now easily be able to maintain the highest level of work quality.
  • Your rate of innovation will be maintained – with added time to think, collaborate, and experiment. And because they are also now doing mostly high-priority work. Focusing on high-priority problems will likely force each top performer to be more innovative. 
  • You will experience reduced turnover – because of their increased contribution to the team, along with less burnout, stress, and improved work/life balance. The retention rate of the team’s top performers will likely measurably improve. And because of the increased team productivity and lower turnover rate among your top performers. The retention and quiet quitting rates among your other team members are also likely to improve. 
  • Your diverse workers will likely face a reduced burden under load management – because most managers have now realized the importance of having diverse employees involved in decision-making and teamwork. Your top-performing diverse employees will likely be in high demand as part of internal projects. And unfortunately, because of this high demand, your diverse workers end up being assigned to a large amount of low-priority work. Your diverse workers will be one of the groups that will need load management the most. Also, managers must be aware that in any case where your process for assigning any reputation-building work opportunities does not appear to be completely objective (after it has been periodically audited). You can expect to receive a significant number of complaints concerning insufficient inclusion and participation.
  • Fewer lost days due to health issues – because top performers will have lighter and more targeted workloads. They will experience less stress, fatigue, and burnout. And whenever those factors are reduced. You can expect improved attendance because they will need fewer “mental health days” in order to cope.
  • Having a load management program may improve future recruiting – obviously, if your practice of limiting the workload on top performers becomes widely known on Internet job search-related sites. That positive employer brand image will serve as a major attraction factor that will eventually improve your long-term recruiting.
  • Top performers will likely consider load management as a form of recognition – when top performers realize that their manager is now concerned about their long-term workload, capabilities, and health. Most top performers will consider that a positive sign and another indication of the employee’s importance to the team. 

The Operational Elements In A Load Management Program

If you decide to actually implement a load management program. You should know that in most load management programs for top performers. There are at least nine operational elements or steps to consider. They are listed below in chronological order.

  • Educate your managers about the load management process – your first step should be educating everyone (especially managers) about the program’s primary goal, which is not to micromanage individual employees. But instead, to maximize their contribution by focusing their work and limiting their stress levels. In addition, every team member should know the benefits of the program. Individual managers must, of course, know the execution steps that are essential to program success. 
  • Identify your top performers – the second step is to identify your top performers, especially those subject to this “piling on of work.” And though, it should become the primary target for your load management program. Of course, it’s possible to manage the workload of every employee on the team. However, in most cases, I don’t recommend that you dilute your effort by including average performers. Managing the workload of low performers has a much lower ROI than managing the workload of top performers. 
  • Prioritize work and top-performer work preferences – during this step, the different types of work that they might be assigned are prioritized with the overall intent to maximize the percentage of high-priority work that is done by top performers. In addition, it makes sense to develop “a more of/less of list,” which can be used by each manager to understand the different types of work that each top performer prefers to do (and is good at) as well as which types of work that they would prefer to avoid.
  • Place critical work on the calendar – to prepare your top performers for the upcoming critical tasks they are likely assigned. You must prominently place each of the team’ s major work events and “busy seasons” throughout the year on the team’s calendar. So that everyone knows well in advance what they must prepare for and when. 
  • Set load targets for each individual top performers – next, the manager must set the workload targets for each targeted employee. That target normally includes the work hours allowed, the number of development hours available, and low-priority projects they cannot accept. Finally, the percentage of their workload must be high-priority work. 
  • Establish your workload rules – operational rules and expectations will need to be set to make consistent workload decisions throughout the team. For example, most will have an “added work rule.” This would mean that a top performer could not be given additional work until an equivalent amount and level of work were simultaneously taken away. Another viable role could be limiting the use of this load management tool exclusively to top performers on only the highest priority business units and teams.
  • Assess each top performer’s current workload/hours – unfortunately, workload tracking is relatively rare outside of the sports world. Only 31% of employees have their time formally tracked (according to the results from the free online test “How do your time management skills stack up?“). However, it’s essential that your current workload levels are monitored periodically. A manager will need to develop or purchase an online work log. This allows in real time for the individual employee (and their manager) to assess their past and current work hours. As well as calculating the percentage of all work that falls into either the high or the low-priority categories. These features will allow a manager to quickly identify any workload problems among their top performers. Finally, this monitoring tool should have the capability of automatically alerting everyone whenever actual workload levels of an individual employee are approaching this employee’s capacity limits. 
  • Assess their stress/motivation levels and the skills necessary for critical work – because one of the main goals of load management is to ensure that top performers will be fully prepared to handle upcoming high-priority tasks. Managers should assess every top performer’s current skill level in each critical skill area for the next task. They should also assess the employee’s current soft capabilities, including their ability to handle stress, engagement level, adaptability, and degree of burnout. You should also measure the employee’s motivation/excitement level. You can do that by using the excitement measuring metric “how many days do I they look forward to coming to work.” Managers should also be continually looking for other indications of employee overload. Including an employee’s increased use of sick/absent days, a decrease in volunteering, increasing work error rates and appearing fatigued.
  • Create a workload correction plan for each top performer – after comparing the actual workload to their ideal target workload. The next step is to develop a personalized load adjustment plan that will correct any areas where the top performer’s workload is out of line. 
  • Use exit interviews to identify workload turnover causes – insert questions in your exit or post-exit interview process. That will reveal when a top performer departed because of workload issues.
  • Institute overall program performance metrics – in order to assess the effectiveness of this program, as well as to continually improve. Performance metrics must be developed and used that will determine if the load management plan is actually meeting each of its goals. In the areas of upcoming task preparation, stress reduction, turnover, work/life balance, and individual and team performance.
If you only do one thing – periodically ask your top performers to mentally rate their current workload. And whenever top performers consider their workload to be excessive. Sit down one-on-one with them and develop an individualized load management program designed specifically for their capabilities and needs.

Final Thoughts

In organizations where top performer turnover is a major issue, load management may literally be the only nonmonetary retention tool that individual managers can institute without the interference of corporate HR. And just like in sports, I predict that you will find that this tool will prove to be the most effective in highly competitive and high-innovation environments. Where it is absolutely essential that you get the maximum performance from each of your top performers, and that becomes possible because they now have “the right workload.” So in my view, now is the right time for HR professionals “to get over” any mental block that they might have about adopting “anything from sports” into their corporate world. And to begin planning for a basic load management program for your top performers in your most strategic teams.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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