Best of HR Roundable: The Big Question – “What If I’m Not An ‘A’ Player?”

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Nov 19, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Editor’s Note: TLNT has been publishing Steve Browne’s recaps of the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati for more than five years. For two weeks, we’re bringing back some you might have missed.

The April HR Roundtable in Cincinnati took an interesting turn this month because it was about a topic that truly tilted at the windmills of traditional management thought — “What if I’m not an ‘A’ player?”

The topic was inspired from the post on Steve Boese’s HR Technology blog – Imagine there are no ‘A’ Players; it’s easy if you try. (Author’s note: If you get nothing else from this summary, subscribe to Steve’s blog — it’s one of the best HR blogs out there!)

To start the discussion, people broke into the obligatory small groups and tackled the following questions:

  1. Who defines what an “A” player is in a company?
  2. Why does everyone need to bring their “A” game to work?
  3. What is a better definition for a “performer?”

People couldn’t wait to sink their teeth into this topic. The discussions were lively and there was great disagreement around the questions which led to some incredible insight which was shared when they came back together.

Who defines what an “A” player is in a company?

  • It depends on the department. This is very true. As much as we want to think there are standards that HR sets for performance, the truth is that the culture of each department dictates who they think is or isn’t a performer. There are so many intangibles here ranging from how the head of the department runs things, if they are consistent, or, if they run things through their own personal filter (which is more likely the reality of what people face).
  • Leaders define what an “A” player is. Maybe. What if the leaders are jerks? If so, do the “A” players reflect those at the top? In most cases they do, because leaders will tend to reward those who are more of a reflection of who they are versus valuing those who are divergent or diverse from their perception of “A” players. We have to get honest in HR and see that we value conformity more than we do diversity.
  • Producers are “A” players. There was an audible groan when this was given as an answer. However, it’s true. People who crank out work that others see as “valued” are tagged as “A” players. In fact, they can be absolute trolls if they produce – as long as companies see results. Again, an audible groan. It’s true, though. Production blinds many flaws and foibles. It doesn’t mean that producers are flawed, but it does blind management to behavior that may not be conducive to great HR. People will overlook much if you bring food to the table
  • It depends . . . on what is measured. Aarrrgghh!! This was Steve’s response, and only because this fact is painful. Too many HR systems (performance management to rankings) try to put people into tight little boxes to make sure that people “fit.” It is the crutch of metrics that makes us try to make humans look, feel and act the way the company expects. It doesn’t mean that it truly “measures” people. This is an area that could be a topic for a future Roundtable on its own. You have to ask yourself – are you measuring people or making them a metric? There’s a huge difference!

Why does everyone need to bring their “A” game to work?

  • Politics. What a great, honest answer! People are conditioned to make sure they appear to be bringing their “A” game because that tends to be rewarded in organizations. Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t do their best work. However, it does mean that people act the way they see others being rewarded for even if it truly isn’t adding value and moving the company forward.
  • You never know who’s watching. How amazing is this answer! Great advice that was shared was this: “Who are you when no one’s watching ??” Performance is something that people either bring, or don’t bring, each day. If a person is worried about who’s monitoring things, then you have to question what performance is being recognized.
  • This is internal self-motivation. Another solid answer. People, in the right environment, truly practice their profession because they’ve hit the magic level of “engagement.” If the culture fits your employees (and it’s different in every department of every company), then they will drive to perform at a high level because they identify with this fit for them.
  • It’s contagious and elevates the whole group! We only had to get through half of the meeting to hit something positive. Yikes!! But, another great response. As much as we focus on negative people and things at work, a person who does bring their “A game” every day is a magnet. People flock to that person and will seek to work with them. Please note that this type of person isn’t automatically a senior level person. This can be a person at any level of a company.
  • They produce. You can’t say that production is bad. We want people to be productive. The caveat that needs to be added to this is “approach.” If a producer is genuine and isn’t just a shark who destroys everything in its path, producers rock! Again, people can’t wait to work with genuine people.

What is a better definition for a “performer?”

  • It depends… This is the best answer for this section because to define a “performer” without context is HR searching for the elusive silver bullet. The factors of: (1) What is expected of an employee in their role (personally, departmentally and company-wide); and, (2) Skills needed for the role, are too strong to quantify in a simple definition that goes across the board.
  • Diversity. Now, if you’re reading this and you jump to the classic EEOC mindset, you’re behind the times. Steve heard the best definition of diversity ever recently from Joe Gerstandt when he said at one of these sessions, “Diversity means difference.” Performers can’t be the same because people aren’t the same. If you want a series of drones who act, talk, and move the same, then you don’t have performers. HR – look at your systems to see if they measure sameness or performance. You’ll be shocked at what you’re measuring.
  • Strengths-based. Too many HR systems measure what people aren’t doing and then they spend countless hours trying to come up with goals, action plans, and work plans to fix people’s weaknesses. These systems are inconsistent, meaningless, and detrimental to organizations. HR could take a new approach by leveraging the strengths that people bring to organizations. In other words, elevating the components where they are “A” players vs. trying to make them “A” players as a whole.

The one factor that was hard to capture in the responses overall at this Roundtable was the years of ingrained, old-school management approach and philosophy on this topic. People were full of catch phrases that did little to truly describe what they were trying to say because they had no other words to use.

This tells us that we have much work to do when it comes to defining performance and performers in organizations. What an amazing opportunity for HR to take on and shine. Look into it!

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.