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Debunking the Myth of "A" Players

I originally planned to write an article entitled, "The 5 A's of A Players" but quickly realized that doing so would only further contribute to a dangerous trend of disengaged employees worldwide. Also, I don't actually believe in the concept of the A Player - at least not in the Jack Welch/Steve Jobs notion of the term. The A Player hypothesis stems from a potentially harmful and antiquated management philosophy made famous by Jack Welch back in his GE heyday when he introduced the "vitality curve" which articulates variances in employee performance. According to Jack, all employees could (and should) be force ranked into tiers such as 20/70/10 or A,B,C - where your top performers (A players) were in the top 20%, your vital majority fit in the middle 70% (B players), and your bottom 10% (C players) should be let go on a regular basis to infuse the organization with more A and B level talents.

On a superficial level, this management philosophy seems quite reasonable. In every endeavor in life there are those who excel, those who are good enough to get by, and those who should keep searching for their true calling. So the vitality model lines up quite nicely with how we perceive and reward success, generally, and has spawned a litany of books and articles on how to know if you are an A Player; how to hire A Players; how to motivate A Players; and how not to lose A Players; etc.

The thought being that these 20% generate the majority of business value and should ultimately progress to the top of the enterprise pyramid. The inherent flaws in this model, however, are that 1) you can become highly leveraged as an organization on the talents, capacity, and whims of a few employees; 2) the powerful interplay of an optimized team can outproduce any single individual's talents and 3) as organizations become increasingly matrix-ized, ability of an individual to command and control based on positional power (individual talent) gives way to the need for individuals capable of leading without line authority which requires acknowledgement that there are others with greater functional expertise that must be engaged to make the right business decisions (collective talent).

This theory of performance tiers also leads most organizations to concern themselves less with the WHY behind the successes of their top talents in favor of the WHAT they can give to motivate these talented few to even higher levels of productivity. It seems that the organizational management scientists have given up on trying to crack the code on overall employee engagement due to an over-reliance on the low hanging fruit of driving talent.

Why not investigate the more difficult question of WHY some employees consistently play at the A level versus B, and C? Wouldn't cracking this code lead, theoretically speaking, to even greater heights of productivity?

Doing such an investigation would invariably force you to move away from cookie cutter roles and oversimplified management philosophies and delve much deeper into the murky waters of employee engagement (and disengagement). It would require truly seeking to understand of the root problems of HOW employees are attracted, onboarded, trained, incentivized, nurtured, and continuously developed. It would drive you to give a hard look at your line managers and their capability to not only manage performance but also to cultivate and inspire their employees and build high performance teams. It would lead you to the long- forgotten conclusion that sustainable organizational success is not built on the abilities of a talented few but on the collective zeal of the enterprise.

Understanding and activating employee engagement is truly one of the most difficult challenges of our age. But failing to do so will place the fate of organizational (and societal) progress in the hands of very few at the expense of the massively under realized potential of the many. The path forward seems to be that we must invest more time in developing human systems that can cultivate and motivate the whole organization while acknowledging the contributions of the A Players and leveraging their infectious influence not only as "the example" but as champions of engagement who can lead the entire team to the productivity promised land.

What are your thoughts on how best to activate and engage employees? Let me know in the comments section below. And if you like this article, please share!

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