Putting employees into performance boxes hurts the workers-and the company
It is something we all do: We meet people and put them into a category. They're sharp, they're slow. They're liberal, they're conservative. They're creative, they're workmanlike.
We do it, of course, because it's useful. It's tough to juggle the mountain of details about everyone we meet, and we need an easy way to think about them.
And we do it in the workplace as well, when managers routinely put employees into one of three boxes: people who perform well (A players), those who perform poorly (C players), and those who are stuck in the middle (B players).
But the inclination to put people into boxes and leave them there can do a lot of harm-to managers, to the employees and to the companies they work for.
For one thing, the boxes are just plain wrong. Broad categories miss a lot of subtleties, so people's true talents and strengths often get ignored. They also make it hard to recognise when people improve or stumble in their performance. The notion that good performers are always good also contributes to what psychologist Edward Thorndike called a halo effect, the mistaken belief that if you were an A player in one thing, you will be an A player in another.
What's more, our prophecies become self-fulfilling-we give people we see as stars more opportunities to succeed, while denying those chances to those we expect to fail.
As simple as A, B, C
Although the A-player notion has no doubt been around forever, it was made famous by Jack Welch in the form of his "vitality curve" describing differences in employee performance. It's used as a justification for forced ranking systems, where employee performance is judged explicitly relative to other employees.
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