B Stands for Backbone

I recently had the chance to attend a college football game.  The anticipation was wonderful with “tailgators” partying in the parking lot and older couples to youngsters all sporting the team colors. They were excitedly hurrying to the stadium, intent on getting settled into their seats prior to “kick-off”.

I did not realize, as I was munching on my brat and peanuts, that the anticipation was to be the highlight of the game!  It was clear early on that the opposing team was far more talented than our team.  As our “star” quarterback tried play after play to get some momentum going, it was evident that he was not getting the support he needed from his team members.  No pass protection; receivers in the wrong place at the wrong time; unnecessary penalties…it was painful! 

The score became more and more of an embarrassment.  Fans began leaving in droves.  I wanted to see the “pain” end, but my friends claimed that they were not “fair weather fans” and, not wanting to deserve that title, (and because they were driving); I stayed to the bitter end. 

While watching the game, I began to think about how we, as a culture, tend to value and focus on the “star” players.  However, without significant contributions from the rest of the team, even a “star” quarterback can be ineffective.

In the June, 2003 issue of The Harvard Business Review, Howard DeLong, a Harvard management professor, and organizational strategist Vineeta Vijayaraghavan extolled the often overlooked value of the supporting team in an article entitled “Let’s Hear It for B Players”.  A players have been the focus for so long that B players were looked at as being “expendable”.  But as any coach would tell you, having more than a few “stars” on any team can be an unproductive nightmare.  What good are brilliant strategic ideas without implementers to move them to action?

A players, who are motivated differently than B players, do not often remain loyal to an organization where promotions and salary increases are in decline.  Who is left to carry on the organizational memory?  Often it is the B players.  According to DeLong and Vijayaraghavan, B players are no less smart than A players, but they tend to have a different temperament.

How do you define a B player?

There are many different types of B players, but they often:

  1. Possess loyalty
  2. Want challenging work
  3. Have a life outside of work
  4. Need occasional recognition
  5. Are honest
  6. Are not motivated by power, money or status (favored objectives of many A players)

Indeed, A players are often mystified or frustrated with B player’s seeming indifference.

Job, Career, or a “Calling”?

Another explanation for the A vs. B difference may focus on whether an individual sees his or her work as a “job”, a “career” or a “calling.  The more we are able to fulfill our most important personal needs and goals in our day to day job, the more it becomes a “career” or, even for some, a “calling”.  If our highest, most cherished needs are fulfilled by coaching a Little League team or volunteering in the community, it is more likely we will not need to get all our needs met at work and we may see it more as a “job”.  Everyone is different.  We each possess unique configurations of values. The degree to which our jobs enable us to act on our values can greatly affect the way we regard our place of work.

As a manager, it is important to recognize the value of both the A and B players.  It is also important to see that they are motivated differently.  Recognizing and measuring performance should be tempered by evaluating loyalty and long-term contributions, as well as tenacity.

Seventy Percent of the Workforce

A players sometimes revert to B players, according to DeLong and others.  For some reason they have become disenchanted with the demands of an A life and yet they are quite valuable because these “converts” can understand both worlds. These individuals can serve to bridge the communication gap between A’s and B’s. Not being mired in organizational politics can cause B players to provide honest, often insightful communication that is not “filtered” for political reasons.

A players are often described as “stars” and C players as underperformers.  B players, who make up 70% of the workforce, need to be an increased focus of management, as they are often carrying the “lions share” of the workload in an organization.

Managers…identify your A’s, B’s and C’s …and motivate accordingly.

Key Employee Retention and Emotional Intelligence Services