Kobe and the All Stars: When the Tail Wags the Dog

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There are a number of reasons to avoid the temptation of a people management approach like “Tograding” – where its often simplistic application is to divide the world of your employees into “A,” “B,” and “C” players – and where the 65% of employees who are “C” players are released and managed out. (Fault me but when someone says an approach is “the silver bullet” I cringe.)

While there are some great elements (e.g. interview and assess thoroughly, make hiring and developing people a high priority), the foundation of the program as it’s typically applied is fundamentally flawed, and its predictive outcome of significantly improved company or workgroup performance unsupported by any solid research.

Here are two more reasons to avoid that approach; designating people as “A” players degrades their performance, and the negative impact and cost to an organization that subscribes to the myth of the “A” player lore is the “elephant in the room” that never gets recognized.

Carol Dweck’s research has shown that labeling someone as good, great, all-star or “A” player can create a fixed mindset – a mindset in the performer (take your pick; student, executive, athlete, etc.) that discourages change, work and improvement. Turns out the potential (and performance) can be enhanced and nurtured with what Dweck terms an open mindset; learning and being coached that success is more about hard work, improvement, perseverance, and having multiple tools – strategies as it were – to reach a goal.

Dweck’s research should be a death knell to all the high exclusive high potential programs some firms promote and manage. “Facts are stubborn things,” Ronald Reagan said. Dan Pink – here speaking at Google – notes that valid research has not gotten in the way of companies using ineffective approaches in their practices.

The second rub with using the topgrading approach as it’s frequently applied is that – surprise of surprises – “A” players act like “A” players; they think their whims and wishes carry more weight than others in the organization. You in effect start growing more prima donnas.

And when you come to highly anointed A Players, basketball superstar Kobe Bryant of the US professional basketball Los Angeles Lakers, surfaces to the top of the list. We all know the Kobe story; the son of a pro-player Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, Kobe started playing basketball when he was 3 years old, was drafted into the US pro leagues right out of high school, and has been a consistent All-Star.

Kobe however, as I would suggest to my former BGI (now BlackRock) colleague David Pope, as an All-Star is the tail that wags the dog. Kobe is an anointed “A” player, knows it, and plays if for all it’s worth. Check out this San Francisco Chronicle report from earlier this year:

“Kobe set out to try to win the game single-handedly. He didn’t pass the ball until 4:15 of the first quarter — and only after taking seven shots and committing four turnovers. Indeed, in the entire first half, Kobe only threw two passes. Bryant’s solitary accomplishment was to personally flat-line the triangle offense.”

Cut to the chase?

Much of what’s done in organizations is well intentioned, can be faddish and simplistic, and not productive. Topgrading is one example albeit a good one of such an approach. Treating people like “A” players can disable them, and creates an environment where outsized egos create disruption, not better performance.

As Dan Pink extolls in this video from a talk at Google, research shows that creating work and jobs that have significant elements of master, purpose and autonomy drives engagement and performance.

If you’re interesting in upping performance amongst individuals and an organization as a whole, the back to basics, research-based approach that Carol Dweck Dan Pink support is the route to go. It’s not faddish; it’s consistent hard work. It also gets positive, durable results.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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