How to accidentally destroy your top performers

Overjustification is a problem in football and increasingly so in rugby.

Motivated people generally perform better than those that aren’t. Those intrinsically motivated – through the enjoyment or the sense of purpose they derive from the activity – are usually the best performers. Those largely motivated by extrinsic factors such as pay or the threat of sanctions are less likely to perform as well.


Therefore logic would dictate that, as a leader, you might want to inspire a culture of intrinsic motivation within your team if you want the best performance.


This can be difficult to obtain. If people perform well, they may feel that they deserve to be better rewarded for their efforts even though they were perfectly happy before. In short they will want more money. If you don’t reward performance with pay, your most talented team members might move elsewhere, so most leaders will ensure better performance equates to better pay.


Here is the ruse: when you increase extrinsic motivators such as pay disproportionately it is highly likely to diminish a person’s intrinsic motivation. This is over justification and it is not good. That is highly likely to have a detrimental effect on performance, especially in high-performance environments, where marginal gains can be the difference between success and failure, such as in elite sport.


When we work with footballers, some of the salaries the players attract are hard to imagine. I have talked to one footballer that has earned more in a season than most people will in their entire working lives. That player didn’t start kicking a ball against the wall outside his house for any other reason than the joy of playing the sport. That joy turned into a passion and as he grew up into an obsession to play at the highest level. He was gifted with the skill to do so.


As he developed, the more he got noticed by scouts and agents and the more his talents were in demand. He very quickly got an offer to play for his local team – the team he had supported all of his life. Within four years he had gone from playing for his local team on an apprenticeship to being paid incredibly well to do the same activity for a top-flight team overseas.


At first the exhilaration was immense, but very soon the pressure on the individual to perform became intense. If he didn’t score for a few games fans and commentators would talk about him being a ‘waste of money’. If he was playing well he began getting even more outrageous offers through his agent to join other, even more prestigious and successful clubs.


Before long he was playing not as much for the joy and passion he had for the game, but to keep the media hounds and fans at bay and to justify his exceptional salary. His decisions as to where to play were linked to financial gain, not personal aspirations.


Training and playing became a nervous and stressful experience affecting mental health and relationships. This very quickly affected the player’s performance. With a dip in performance his stock began to dwindle and after a few seasons of dramatic highs and lows he was shipped back to his local team on a free transfer and soon took the decision to retire as a player and move into coaching.



Did the incredible amounts of money and other extrinsic factors such as fan and media pressure destroy his ability to perform at the highest level? Definitely. Did they destroy his joy for the game? Absolutely. This incredibly talented individual failed to achieve his potential as the motivators that he needed to perform were all wrong.


Overjustification reaches beyond football and sport in general into industry. It affects performance which in the end affects the bottom line. Leaders that understand motivation are better armed to walk the tight rope between ensuring people are fairly compensated but still love what they do. Leaders that understand why their intern turns up unpaid everyday, works hard and is passionate about their job versus the well paid senior executive who is disgruntled over his latest bonus reward are likely to avoid overjustification.


There are no easy answers here. Motivation is a complex area of behaviour. There are some key guidelines that may help though:


Pay needs to be enough to take it off the table as an issue, but you start paying disproportionately and you may start to damage performance. Pay well, but don’t pay obscenely well.


Ensure you are a ‘role architect‘ as a leader. Put yourself in the shoes of every member of your organisation and try to understand how they are motivated. Build roles with intrinsic motivation in mind and you should see a performance effect. How can you give people more autonomy? Can you let them feel a sense of mastery of the skills they bring to the party? And do they feel a sense of purpose?


Bring the right people in for the right reasons and overjustification may never become a big cultural issue in your organisation. If you routinely luring people in with big bucks, they may not perform as well as you hope or if they do, it may be at the expense of your organisational culture.


Openness and transparency and a fair payment structure can take the issue off the table, or at least minimise it.


Ditch the bonus culture. You don’t dock wages if performance dips so why pay more if they do well? Pay fairly and evenly and nurture a sense of purpose instead.