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There’s an interesting article at Harvard Business Review, entitled, “How to Manage a Team of B Players,” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. I appreciate the author’s attempt at describing the leadership challenge and approach to molding a group of “ordinary” individuals into a high performance team. He offers some compelling guidance. I am however, uncomfortable with his easy use of the term, “B-Players.”
And while I am absolutely guilty in the past of using the A, B, C, designation to characterize individuals and their level of skill/capability/potential, I’ve grown uncomfortable with the cavalier assignment of people to these categories. It’s a crutch that I gave up. In my experience, the labels are often misused or abused to mask managerial laziness. Now, when I see it in print, I flinch.
As mentioned in the article, Jack Welch popularized this designation during his tenure as Chairman and CEO of GE, with the notion of turning B-players into A-players, moving C players to B and letting the A-players stretch and run. And while Welch might have had some rigor in his assessment and categorization approaches (along with his forced ranking system), for the rest of us, the cavalier use of these labels is lazy and potentially destructive.
And yes, I get that every person comes to us with different skills, aptitudes and perspectives. I love challenging those ready to navigate big, hairy, ambiguous situations and I love watching others grow into their own by leveraging their skills and capabilities and inner drive. What I truly dislike however, is a categorization system that in very simple fashion draws upon our lifetime of school grading (A=excellent, B=Very Good, C=Average) and mostly assigns people in an arbitrary manner to a particular group, thus altering their options, opportunities and futures. It’s just lazy management and in many cases, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those being labeled.
Labeling a person a C-player is effectively sealing their fate on your team or in your organization. The connotation is some combination of not smart/not motivated/lousy attitude and managers are quick to write these people off instead of focusing on coaching behavior changes, providing training or varying assignments to better match the real skills of the individuals. Give someone the label of C-player, and you’re capitulating on your responsibility to manage and develop. It’s a way to fast-track a perceived “problem” out of your daily life.
The B designation is even trickier. When polling managers on what they interpret when they hear that someone is a B-player, I hear words such as solid, dependable, journeyman, along with some qualifiers that justify a label other than A or C. Again, this categorization paints a scarlet letter on the forehead of the individuals and dictates a certain, limited level of attention and support. In looping back with managers who had classified a number of their employees as B-players, I’ve rarely encountered a change in label, particularly from B to A. Once the view of someone is locked in as second-tier or second-class or B, it’s difficult for the individual to shake that label.
Every one of us is a work in process. There are indeed circumstances where someone’s combined attributes don’t fit our needs. There are mismatches between the environment and people. There are situations where you have to choose to invest more or cut. Just don’t take the easy way out by lumping someone in a category and then leaving them there to grow old. Your first job is to get the right people in the right roles. And yes, sometimes it takes creativity and effort.
Put your so-called B-player into the right role or a different environment and they may very well swim circles around your designated superheroes. Find the right combination of coaching and challenge and support and watch your so-called C player blossom into a remarkable performer.
And yes, I get that what I’m describing was the intent of the author in the article. His intent is positive. I simply rankled at the focus he placed on the label. It opens up too much potential for misuse and abuse.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Beware the easy and cavalier assignment of labels. It’s not that simple.
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