A Dangerous Workplace Reality: Referring to People as “B” Players

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Apr 29, 2015

I’ve been working in this space at the intersection of people, HR, technology, and appreciation for many years now.

In that time, I’ve seen, heard and read many different attitudes and approaches for how to motivate others, how to manage talent, how to rank employees based on skills and performance, etc. As a reader of this blog, I’m sure you have, too.

One attitude that I’ve come to regard as deeply insidious and dangerous in an organization is thinking about employees as “A” and “B” players.

The mistakes in thinking of “B” players

Yes, we all know there are superstar employees, and those who are less skilled or perhaps less committed (or sometimes, just more interested in truly achieving work-life balance). And yet, the blinders of “A vs B” cause us to miss out on the great work, contributions and support our so-called “B” players are ready and willing to give, if just given the chance.

Late last year, Thomas J. DeLong, the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at Harvard Business School, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled 2 Myths about Engaging B-Players. It’s a follow-up to his seminal article, Let’s Hear It for B Players.

In the article, Dr. DeLong points out:

The business world’s understandable fascination with star performers can lure us into the dangerous trap of underestimating the vital importance of supporting actors. Top players do make enormous contributions. Yet in our collective 30 years of consulting, research, and teaching, we have found that companies’ long-term performance relies heavily on the often overlooked commitment and contributions of B players.”

The myths of “B” players

He goes on to point out two myths of “B” players.

  • First, many organizations tend to focus on getting more out of B players in boom times when resources are tight. That approach means these organizations are missing out on that additional discretionary effort the rest of the time.
  • Second, there really aren’t any B players in highly competitive companies such as Google. (I would argue we don’t have any B players at Globoforce, either.)

You may be asking, “What about the performance bell curve? Isn’t that a reality? After all, every employee can’t be in the top 10 percent of high performers.”

Yes, this is true — but it misses the point. As Dr. DeLong points out, many of those in what I call the “Mighty Middle” simply don’t seek the limelight. They don’t need to “shine” themselves, but they certainly deliver high-quality work that makes it possible for your superstars to shine even brighter themselves.

There’s a better way to classify workers

So, can we agree to ban the phrase “B Players” when talking about the valuable people we have the honor to work with every day?

Instead, be sure all employees have the opportunity to be respected, recognized and rewarded – regardless of their place in the spotlight – for their behaviors, contributions and efforts that help us all succeed better together.

How does your organization think about employee classification?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.