When companies speak of “A-Players,” it’s often morally bankrupt

Image for post
Image for post

It might be. Here’s the analogy I want you to think about, then I will try to present this on both sides of the issue. Ready? Set? Let’s go.

If you could design a workout program and there were tiers of equipment — let’s say world-class equipment, mid-level, and shitty — would you give the world-class equipment to those people who were already tremendously fit?

Well, you might. Or they might gravitate towards it naturally, whereas those who aren’t fit at all might not even know what to do.

This is probably a flawed analogy, admittedly, but it ties back to how companies deal with their perceived “A-Players,” or “top talent.” They tend to throw every resource, perk, benefit, extra piece of scratch, learning opportunity, travel/conference opportunity, etc. at those people. Everyone considered mid-level gets scraps. Everyone considered low-level gets ignored and then fired when revenue erodes.

(Not “everyone” per se, but these are general buckets.)

There are a couple of different issues with the whole “A-Player” ecosystem, which we’ll now go one-by-one on.

Are “A-Players” even “A-Players?”

I’d argue “no.” Oftentimes they are C-Players who make bosses look good/better, so the bosses anoint them as “A-Players.”

“Morally reprehensible”

From here, and Marcus Buckingham:

He noted that in any big company, individuals who have been labeled HiPo “get all the goodies and everybody else doesn’t…. It’s morally reprehensible.” He asserted that potential is something that everyone has. “Any sort of human can grow and learn and get better,” he said. “It’s not a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset…. All of us have a growth mindset. The question is, where do you learn and grow the most?”

I’d agree with that, broadly.

Strengths vs. weaknesses

Is the job of a manager to develop the strengths inherent in an employee, which may not be entirely work-conducive, or is the job of a manager to weed out the weaknesses in an employee population? Very few people have a definitive answer to this question.

What about when we promote “A-Players?”

It usually becomes a massive train wreck, because the “A-Player” was perceived as an “A-Player” around processes and tasks. That doesn’t even remotely relate to being able to manage other human beings. And that right there is a giant chasm that causes work to be less-than-stellar for many.

In fact, from that same article linked above, we have this little section on work’s general over-reliance on process and individual tasks vs. the big picture:

Buckingham said that while people definitely should be given feedback when they get facts wrong or miss procedural steps, true excellence in a job is “a whole bunch more [than that]…. You can get the facts or steps right and still be really, really, average.”

Yep. Again, many task jockeys are considered “A-Players” and in reality they are just horribly average employees filtered through the perception of those who make the most money thinking this stuff vs. that stuff matters more.

Allocation of resources

Now, personally I do not believe there is such a thing as a “bad employee,” but I know many disagree with me on that particular point. So let’s go ahead and say there are bad employees.

OK. All of work is just a giant exercise in allocating resources. So should you allocate resources to bad employees, or good ones? Well, obviously good ones.

But “good ones” means more than just your perceived “A-Players.” While your corporate training program may suck, the sheer fact is that many of your employees both deserve and want training. When all the assets and resources are allocated simply to the top levels of perceived performance, that does seem somewhat inhumane. (So do other elements of work.)

What’s your perception? Are we over-focusing on the “A-Players” and “HiPos” these days?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store