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A Players, B Players, and C Players: Appreciating the Differences

When it comes to recognizing employees, you should look beyond top performers, say several businses publications. The article in Time magazine entitled, “It's the B Team's Time to Shine,” was based largely on a Harvard Business Review article, “Let's Hear It for the B Players,” by Thomas DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghaven, which also inspired "Employers Learning that 'B Players' Hold the Cards" by Del Jones in USA Today.
 

All three articles make one point: that 80% of the American workforce, the B players that do most of the work, this backbone of productivity and service, is largely taken for granted by their employers.

Let's take a look at DeLong and Vijayaraghaven's definition of A players, B players, and C players.

A players are star performers. They are employees who put their professional lives ahead of their families and personal lives because they are striving to accomplish more or move upward in the organization. A players are the risk-takers, the “high potentials,” and employers enjoy finding and hiring them. They are also the players most likely to leave the organization for opportunities elsewhere.

B players are competent, steady performers who balance their work and personal lives while still doing the bulk of the work of the company. B players tend to stay put, don't require a lot of attention, and they get the job done. Because B players stay, they tend to carry the corporate history with them.

C players are performers who are not achieving enough to satisfy their employers and are most likely to be asked to move along. In fact, a small number of organizations still use the forced ranking method of employee evaluation to require managers to rank 10% of their employees as C players with an eye toward removing them. (I have strong feelings about this “rank and yank” appraisal practice, but I'll save them for another article.)

Daren Fonda, who wrote the article in Time , interviewed a number of workers who view themselves as B players and discovered that they are not only the most important group, B players are the “angriest.” A software engineer in General Electric's medical systems division is one example. She said, “People are so undervalued here – we feel like commodities.” She went on to express a sentiment that any employer should find troubling. “GE is a great company to work for in terms of benefits, and I'm glad to have a job, but in two years when my kids are gone I doubt that I'll put up with this.”


No author made a judgment about employees choosing to be A players or B players. And it is a choice: many B players are former A players whose views on how to best manage their lives has changed. The point made in each article was that corporations should pay more attention to their B players if they want to keep them. The authors all noted that many A players are recruited by the competition, leaving the company when better opportunities come along.

Paraphrasing DeLong, the USA article pointed out, “There are many types of B players, but most are loyal (to a point), don't live and die for the next promotion (but want challenging work), don't need coddling (but can die of neglect), are honest (if not diplomatic) and are not driven by power, status and money as are A players, who live for little else. Indeed, A players admit to being maddened by the B players' seeming indifference to what matters most to those at the top.”

So, we have this large group of B players, doing their jobs pretty well most of the time and being taken for granted, ignored by the organization, and probably by their managers as well. I thought DeLong and Vijayaraghavan did a pretty good job with their recommendations for how to keep your B players and how to keep them from becoming C players. I am considering giving them honorary “Recognologist” status. Included among their suggestions for managers are:

Accept differences – If you're an A player, avoid the temptation to undervalue B players. Ask them what they want from their careers and match them with resources to help them get there.

Give the gift of time – Track your communication patterns to ensure you're not ignoring – and thus alienating – solid B players

Hand out the prizes – Since B players are promoted relatively infrequently, reward them in other ways. Even handwritten notes of appreciation can make B players feel valued and motivated.

DeLong and Vijayaraghavan speak from their “collective 20 years of consulting, research and teaching,” and I congratulate them on the insight they have developed at such a young age. I know too many managers with 25 to 30 years of experience who still haven't figured out that a little attention can go a long way toward motivating the people who work for them, the people who make it possible for their department, division, and company to succeed. However, I've got to add something that I think they've missed.

When organizations send out their recruiters to find their next set of stars, they rarely have a quota of 10 % A players, 80% B players and 10% C players. Not one HR professional has ever hired someone knowing she would become a C player. On the other hand, no one can truly predict who will become the A players or B players. When new employees enter into the work environment it (the environment) will begin to change them, one way or another.

The articles warn business leaders, “Ignore B players at your peril.” I would suggest that the warning should be, “Ignore any of your players at your peril.” If management is indifferent to B players, it's likely that they're ignoring A players as well.

A players behave the way they do because they are striving for something they want, not necessarily for something the company wants – money, power, prestige. If A players get what they want from the company, they may stay. If they don't, they will look for it elsewhere, or – and this is the interesting part – they will stay and begin to behave like B players.

These once highly motivated people can become motivated by other wants. Maybe they they've developed their outside lives, married, had kids. All good reasons for cutting back on their hours and effort. (The USA Today article quotes one B player as being most excited about coaching his son's basketball and baseball teams.) Or maybe their risk-taking has been punished once too often by a senior manager, and they are simply making too much money to take more risks.

Either way, A players don't stop being A players. They just stop being A players at work.

That's why every organization needs to create an environment or culture of recognition that appreciates every employee for what they bring to the work place every day. I promise you that B players behave like A players sometimes, and C players (if there truly are C players) have it in their power to behave like B players, even A players, when they want to.

To realize the highest returns on human capital, an organization must teach its managers to recognize when its A players, B players, and C players deliver A performances, and then applaud, appreciate, and reward them. There is no reason why the B players can't play on the A team most of the time, and B players will, if they know their efforts won't go unnoticed. This is the 21 st century; this is everyone's time to shine.



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