30 Jun 2003  Research & Ideas

Are You Supporting Your B Players?

B players are the heart and soul of top organizations, says HBS professor Thomas J. DeLong. Here’s why—and what you can do to manage B players better.

 

By day, managers run themselves ragged worrying about their A players: their stars, their rainmakers, their top 15 percent. By night, the same managers fret over their C players—their bottom 15 percent of staff. The C players are those employees, incompetent by accident or design, who drift along and yet pose a drag on the organization because they require constant reinforcement.

So who is there to care about the B players?

According to HBS professor Thomas J. DeLong, both in a reunion session for HBS alumni and in a recent Harvard Business Review article co-authored with Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, B players are the "heart and soul" of any company. B players are loyal. They are the ones who do their work without fanfare or fuss. They are the keepers of institutional memory during hard times such as a merger or downsizing.

There are some who could be A players but have chosen not to for lifestyle reasons. There are others who aren't ever going to be stars, "which is fine," said DeLong. Unlike A players, B players are often more secure in their objectives and know where they want to go. They need less feedback; they don't want handholding.

"These are the people who create the ballast for the organization," said DeLong.

In his talk titled "The Power of Supporting Players in Organizations: What's Right with B Players," DeLong told a classroom filled with visiting alumni about the dangers of underestimating B players. He also gave examples of high-performing organizations that cultivate all their employees, and offered advice on improving management skills.

...if you ignore [B players] long enough, they begin to see themselves as low performers.
— Thomas J. DeLong

It is all too easy for hard-driving managers to avoid the effort of nurturing B players—"enhancing human capital" as he called it—because doing so takes time and entails a certain degree of risk. Illustrating his talk with a simple four-quadrant model, he said, "The secret to the model is that the only way to do the right thing well is to do it poorly first, whether it's learning algorithms or derivatives or parenting or riding a bicycle."

"One of the things we find is that if you ignore [B players] long enough, they begin to see themselves as low performers," DeLong said.

Companies that cultivate B players

It may seem that ranking people as A, B, or C players isn't fair. DeLong agreed. But, he added, people categorize others all the time. In his research he has been surprised and frightened at how quickly people in organizations get classified. Even a couple of months is all it takes.

"Once someone is labeled a low performer, it's an uphill battle. Once someone is perceived as a star, I'm telling you, the load is lighter," he said.

Hiring and socializing people so that they stay is something that takes practice. Organizations such as Southwest Airlines, Cirque du Soleil, and C&S Wholesalers (which dominates the grocery business in the U.S. Northeast) all follow two principles that make them successful in their fields thanks to their determination to engage their employees, he said.

Southwest Airlines, for example, received 149,000 applications last year for 2,900 openings. "Basically it's harder to get a job at Southwest Airlines than it is to be accepted to the Harvard Business School," he quipped. And C&S Wholesalers, based in Brattleboro, VT, grew from a $40 million company in 1980 to a $14 billion business today.

Companies like Southwest, C&S Wholesalers, and Cirque du Soleil are unique because:

  • They battle against what DeLong called a natural gravitational pull toward alienation within organizational life. "In other words, if you ignore your employees over time, they will start to feel left out and disconnected," he said. It is not a competency issue for managers, but an "inclusion" issue. People start to feel that they're no longer "in the club." Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest, decided to create a club of 114,000 employees, said DeLong.
  • They don't espouse one theory and embrace its opposite. In other words, they practice what they preach.

Drawing inspiration from Edgar H. Schein's influential book Career Dynamics, DeLong suggested that managers should think about three levels of human behavior in organizations. The first is technical skills, be they in marketing, operations, or the legal department. The second is hierarchy, based on the concept of social relativity, when individuals wonder how they compare to their peers. Even satisfied people get antsy when they see their peers moving forward.

People wonder, "Am I in or am I out?"
— Thomas J. DeLong

The third level, the "inclusionary dimension," is the most important one to DeLong, he said. "People wonder, 'Am I in or am I out?' We're gauging that every day," he said. Successful companies such as the ones named in his talk actively foster feelings of inclusion among their employees.

"When we asked Herb Kelleher, 'Who are your customers?' he said, 'My employees. That's who I obsess about.'"

Southwest Airlines' philosophy is fun, frugality, and family, DeLong added. "The B players are valued."

Standing up for B players

Managers who are high achievers themselves find it especially difficult to focus on B players. The Achilles' heel of these A-type managers is that if they can't do something right the first time, they give up or they manufacture a compelling rationale that explains why it is not worth the effort to improve employee satisfaction.

Furthermore, he said, such managers are afraid of getting labeled. "If you want to threaten a really smart person who is task driven, question his or her competency. That's the very soul of who they are," he said. These managers also keep busy schedules and are reluctant to slow down to learn new skills. Sports champions such as Tiger Woods, he said, can do their training out of public view. But managers almost always train on the job.

Managers can take three steps to enhance their company's human capital especially vis-à-vis B players, DeLong said.

  1. Create an agenda. John Kotter's work on highly successful manager-leaders found that all of them kept very simple agendas, not long to-do lists. Their agendas were divided into three time periods: zero to six months, six to eighteen months, and eighteen months and longer. Have only two or three items on your zero-to-six-month frame for a start, DeLong advised. You need a pattern to the overall agenda, but no more than a total of ten agenda items.
  2. Create a support system. It can consist of close friends or people close to you in your organization who will help you if you stumble. "You need some people who will tell it to you straight, who know where your blind spots are," he said.
  3. Finally, dare to make a difference. Ask yourself, "Do I make a difference in the lives of other people?"

Managers who bring out the best in B players, DeLong said, are tapping into a wonderful and often well-hidden resource. Organizations—and individuals—are much better for it.

Professor DeLong presented his comments to alumni on May 30 at Harvard Business School. His article on this theme, co-written with Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, appeared in the June issue of Harvard Business Review as "Let's Hear It for B Players."