There’s a reason why sports teams with the most talented performers don’t always win championships and, in fact, take home the trophy far less than one might expect judging by the numbers alone (are you paying attention, Blue Jays management?).
This is because a team needs more than just A-Players who savour the spotlight and are intrinsically motivated to achieve more and more. A team also needs a mix of strong B-Players who bring essential stability and consistency to a team’s ecosystem.
An organization functions – or dysfunctions – in much the same way. Without enough B-Players on board, it’s only a matter of time before an organization starts to stagnate and fail. What’s more, it’s also just a matter of time before coveted A-Players leave the organization either because they’re fed up with a company’s tolerance of lower performance standards, the absence of risk tolerance, or simply their evaluation that their company is generally “okay” with things that A- Players find disagreeable; if not intolerable.
B-Players, however, are in fact more tolerant of many facets of organizational life that cause A-Players to yawn and yearn for something better. And even though A-players are (rightfully) applauded for their risk seeking natures, organizations need to remember that they should be including no risk and low risk strategies into their plans. Keep in mind that a low risk strategy is intentional, and very different from having no strategy at all.
So why don’t organizations do a better job of aligning their strategy and talent (which of course includes B-Players) with growth goals? A big reason is that the majority of business wisdom concerns A-Players: how to get them, how to keep them, and essentially, how to turn every employee into one. Yet as noted, an army of A-Players is simply not good for an organization. A balance of B-Players is essential, and the first step in making this happen is by understanding who they are.
B-Players are the men and women who:
- perform the majority non-glamorous but essential work in an organization — and they do so out of a sense of duty and pride, not a desire for recognition and rewards (although like anyone else, they appreciate these when offered).
- are typically self-managed, in the sense that they know their tasks and what’s required of them. While they’re open to “being managed” and will not resent or repel it (in the way that A-Players typically will), they don’t require it in order to make a contribution.
- are beacons of stability and consistency. This doesn’t mean they aren’t creative, innovative or looking for ways to improve – they are. It simply means that they bring invaluable stability to an organization; especially during times of confusion and chaos.
- take pride in their ability to balance work and their personal life – which, as countless workplace performance studies verify, is actually good for the organization’s bottom line in the long-run (especially in how it cuts down on extended sick leave and turnover).
Problems with B-Players
Paradoxically, it’s the low maintenance nature of B-Players that can lead to trouble. Even if they aren’t they aren’t happy with some aspect of their employment, they’re much more likely to bear down and get the job done vs. escalate the issue and voice their misery (A-Players), or just “phone-it-in” with the least amount of effort possible (C-Players). Indeed, it’s not uncommon for organizations to be stunned by the resignation of a valuable, long-serving B-Player who reveals that he or she has felt unappreciated, overworked and taken for granted for years; sometimes decades.
The best way for organizations to celebrate their B-Players is, fortunately, also the simplest: stop trying to turn them into A-Players. There are a few aspects of this cease-and-desist order, which include:
- stop thinking of B-Players as defective people who “couldn’t cut it” as A-Players — this is both insulting and wrong. In certain situations, contributions made by B-Players are much more valuable than A-Players.
- stop fostering a work culture that exclusively serves the needs and preferences of A-Players (i.e. one characterized by change for the sake of change, competition as a form of motivation, individual achievement vs. team goals, and so on).
- stop assuming that B-Players are happy with their job because they aren’t complaining, or because there’s no discernible drop in the quality of their work or their productivity. Create a safe “no blame” framework within which B-Players can voice both their concerns and their suggestions for improvement.
The Bottom Line
Organizations need to reframe how they view B-Players (in fact, we should consider renaming this entire group of contributors to “producers”). When this happens and B-Players are celebrated for what they contribute vs. criticized for what they don’t, everyone benefits: B-Players, A-Players and the organization as a whole.