Article Reflection – “Why Bosses Should Stop Thinking of ‘A Players,’ ‘B Players’ and ‘C Players’”

Check out this article in the Wall Street Journal. The crux is that we may very well be doing a disservice to our teams (and companies, by extension), by separating our employees into A, B and C players. The writer does a much better job describing the why’s, so I highly recommend reading it, but a quick overview:

  • It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we’ve dropped someone in a bucket, they are going to have a really hard time switching to a new one. We give our A-players more support, opportunities and energy in development.
  • It fails to look at the entire picture. A-players may be receiving easier tasks, more support, or be under a better-functioning leader.
  • It feeds the assumption that A-players are great at everything and opens up doors for them that they may not be the right fit for. We’re better off identifying what people are good at.
  • Perhaps on a subconscious level, it feeds the egos of leaders: “If I’m in a leadership role, it must be because I’m an A-player.”

I think, like most people in HR-related fields, I’ve spoken in terms of A-players. For one, it’s almost like a common lingo – everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. But also, it just make sense to me. You want the best people on your teams, you want to coach people up who can be coached up, and you want to exit under-performers and replace them with really solid talent. Easy peasy! But maybe I’m not doing right by an organization or its people by blindly accepting this approach. So let’s look at the workplace from the alternate perspective.

Moneyball – The Baseball Analogy

I’m a big baseball fan and found myself completely blown away by the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball approach as it started impacting the product they put on the field. For those who aren’t baseball (or Brad Pitt) enthusiasts, basically the A’s were a poor team that needed to figure out how to win. The majority of teams out there took the approach of trying to assemble the best collection of A-Players to fill their roster. This worked great for teams with deep pockets, but how could a small market team potentially compete?

Billy Beane, the General Manager, had to learn how to build a team differently. Leaning heavily on stats, he’d find players who most teams viewed as “average”, but were actually exceptional in certain situations or with specific skills, and acceptable in other areas. For example, instead of looking at batting average, he’d look at how often people got on base (baserunner = runs … it doesn’t matter how they get there). Because most teams weren’t looking at this, he was also able to exploit a lower demand and get these players very affordably.

His managers learned how to play people – people many other teams would categorize as “C-Players” – when the situations they were exceptional in arose. Maybe someone was better against lefties with runners on. Or maybe a relief pitcher performed best in the 8th inning on two days of rest. Beane’s staff took the time to understand what every person on his roster was exceptional at, and deployed them in those circumstances – quite successfully. The legwork to understand at this level of detail was much more time intensive. But the team consistently competed against teams with bigger talents and deeper pockets. This would seem to be anecdotal validation to understanding what people are good at and using them appropriately. It’s easier to see the weaknesses, but are your “underperformers” always bad across the board? Maybe they are exceptional at something or aren’t being assigned the right work?

My Experience as an Employee

There are things I’m really great at. There are things I’m satisfactory at. There are things I stink at. I am sure multiple managers and co-workers of mine would swear to you that I’m an A-Player and I knock everything out of the park. But I’m equally sure there are managers and co-workers who would say I’ve dropped the ball and am definitely not an A-Player.

I don’t think the reason for that is is simple as “I’m great!” or “I stink!”. There are the types of work I’ve been assigned, my bandwidth at the time, what else was going on in my life, and how I was managed throughout the work. It’s easy for me to see that in myself and even in my team. But it’s much harder to avoid falling into the trap of sometimes thinking someone is an underperformer without actually looking at them and their work situation objectively. C-Players can be A-Players in a different work circumstance (and vice versa!).


Going Forward

People can absolutely be underperformers across the board – even the Oakland A’s released players. Maybe a different way of looking at the situation is seeing what skills and qualities your company needs and what skills your people have. If someone isn’t exceptional in specific area or enough areas for your business needs, then it’s worth addressing. At least that forces you to look at the skills of all your players, see if they can be put in a situation at your company to be exceptional, and make decisions after that.

If we as companies spend more time deploying our staff on the things they are best at, perhaps we can get better performance and higher engagement. From a competitive standpoint, there may be some value to building a company full of generally-good people who each are exceptional at a couple of very specific things. If you are strategic about how you fill those exceptional things across the board, I wonder if the Moneyball philosophy could work in business as well.


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