On B Players

“We only hire/work with A players” is a line that was always deeply disturbing to me. The follow-up is to declare who is a B player. Spoiler alert: it’s not the speaker. In a different context, they are all resources anyway.

What’s the problem?

Identity Framing

One bothering thing is the framing of identity. The language doesn't say “you are (not) playing A-game”, it says “this is who you are”. I find language defining the identity of other people extremely harmful as it implies people can't change. Speaker often engages in mind reading: assuming someone else's motivation, as if they'd be in their head.

People change and their engagement in the workplace changes over time. Identity labels ignore that.

Sports Metaphor

The language is presumably1 taken from sports which makes it even worse. You may be playing as well as the A-players—but you are not an A-player until you are invited there by a professional gate-keeper.

I see sports metaphors used often. The invoked similarities2 are the need for cooperation, training, and the fact that you are fired if someone better comes by. It conveniently leaves out the differences that render those comparisons questionable at best:

  • Sports are played by well-defined, static rules that are not changed in decades

  • The amount of players in a team is fixed, regardless of the success of the team

  • The amount of teams in a league is changing very slowly, if at all

  • The career of top players in most sports is relatively short and at a young age

  • Most sports require a relatively limited and well-defined skill set. Training this skill set is well researched, starts at an early age and borderline has minimal genetical requirements that are well above the population average

None of this is true for almost any business role:

  • Businesses change all the time, especially in technology

  • New companies are entering the field all the time

  • Successful companies grow and need to make teamwork with a higher and higher amount of players

  • Careers span decades and the skill in the game goes up well into the middle age, often later

  • Companies require a diverse set of skills. Having a better mix of skills is of often of more value than how good you are in a particular skill

Is there something to be learned from sports? Sure! As it is from emergency response, psychology, exploration, and million other fields. But I don't find pretending that business is sport particularly useful.

Elitism

I never heard anyone declaring themselves to be a B-player. I only heard this from people trying to make themselves feel better—or to instill a sense of elitism into their team.

I believe there are better ways to motivate a team and to get them a sense of pride and achievement. It may be an intentional invocation of the in- and out-group dynamics here, but in my experience, it creates more problems long-term.

Ignoring The Environment

A-players may look at employee performance, the same way they look at athletes running 100 meters. But businesses care about contribution. Being a performant 100-meter runner is not sufficient to be a good football player. This is why it’s important to know what business you work for.

A contribution is very hard to quantify, which is why performance reviews (see the language?) often feel misaligned with reality. But if I'd have to try to express the quantification3, the formula would be:

contribution = (role skills and competency x collaboration and communication) ^ culture and environment

Collaborating and communicating with your colleagues is as important as your job skills in almost any job. Even if you could do your work on your own, you have to at least communicate enough to know that you are working on the correct thing.

But the culture and the environment you work in goes into the exponent. High-performing individuals as well as whole teams can’t be just moved to a different company. It goes the other way: I saw struggling people becoming stars just by finding a fitting culture.

As a reminder: this is not an objective measure of the environment, it’s about a fit between you and the company.

If you want to have an environment that allows “B players” to rise, do not label people. Ask yourself instead: “What can I do to allow this person to contribute more?”


  1. I couldn't find the source. The A-player language is originally taken from GE, includes A/B/C players, and is ranking employers against each other on the vitality curve. I, fortunately, haven't encountered that system, but the language stayed. ↩︎

  2. The one that fascinates me the most is scrum though. The original scrum: two groups of narrowly trained professionals trying to push each other away from a ball using a force that breaks the bones of less experienced or well-build players. Used as an apt metaphor for an agile software development methodology. Written like that...never mind, it makes sense now. ↩︎

  3. In theory, the contribution is quantifiable as a single number called a compensation. In practice, compensation more often correlates with “how hard it is to replace you”. ↩︎

Published in Essays and tagged corporationsrantsstartupswork in IT


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