Banish the cult of the A-B-C player!

Many managers are enamored of the ABC player model first made popular by Jack Welch at GE and since then adopted by many organizations wishing to raise the bar on employee performance and to confront festering performance problems. Some versions of this approach involve forced ranking, in which the top 20% of employees must be classified as A players, the middle 70% as B’s, and the bottom 10% as C’s – and then the C’s exited from the organization like so much deadwood.
 
The forced ranking component of this approach is controversial and has been abandoned by many organizations because of the toxic consequences, which were engraved into the popular imagination with Vanity Fair’s 2012 expose of Microsoft culture. Every employee interviewed for the article said that Microsoft’s use of forced ranking was the single most destructive process in the company.
 
Some performance management experts have challenged the forced ranking model and have suggested more constructive approaches to working with C players. The assumption is, the notion of placing employees in these A, B, and C buckets is not problematic – what makes it destructive is being required to force a pre-determined percentage of employees into each category and firing the bottom 10%.
 
But I’ve watched managers in a number of organizations use the ABC model, and I believe this model itself, even without the forced ranking element, is destructive to organization culture and to the very performance goals that drive it. Let me tell you why I say this.
 

The Pitfalls Of ABC Thinking

1 – It allows managers to avoid articulating the criteria for their judgments.

Here is a typical scenario for this type of conversation. A team of managers is sitting in a room reviewing each manager’s employees and debating the rating given to each one. In these conversations, you hear a lot of words like “good,” “okay,” “great,” “bad,” and “better” (as in, “my guy is better than your guy.”). Often, there is no articulation of the behavioral criteria for judging someone as an A, B, or C player. Or each manager’s personal criteria are surfaced as the debate progresses, but across managers, the criteria are apples and oranges. Sue says employee X is an A player because he is great at developing his team. Joe says employee Y is better than X because he is great with clients.
 
If managers can’t articulate their criteria, it follows that employees subjected to this evaluation have no clue what they have to do to be considered okay, good, or great. The focus on judgment and evaluation lets managers off the hook about describing their expectations.
 

2 – It takes the emphasis off coaching and development.

Once someone is deemed a C player, the notion is that those folks should be “managed out.” Here’s a typical description of a C player, from the YoungUpstarts website. “Marginal in their performance and unremarkable in any positive attribute they bring to the workplace. They exist, take up space, and just get their jobs done, sort of.”
 
Well, hmmm. What could be some reasons for this poor performance? Perhaps the employee doesn’t understand the expectations he is not meeting. Perhaps he is in the wrong job. Perhaps he is lacking the skills and knowledge to perform, and he has no access to help. Perhaps he is getting  rewards from his behavior that the manager is not aware of. ABC thinking encourages managers to form judgments and act on them, rather than working developmentally with the person. Do you really have such an endless supply of A players?
 

3 – It leads to “set up to fail” syndrome. (click here for a previous post on this topic)

Regardless of the remedial actions that are taken once an employee has been identified as a C player, the effects of this labeling also kick into action. Nobody wants to use that employee to staff their projects. Nobody really wants to spend time coaching the employee or has much hope of success, because the common belief is that a manager’s coaching time is better spent on the highest-potential folks. The manager will more closely supervise the employee, require approval on decisions, and otherwise signal to the employee that his ability is in doubt, which results in the employee losing confidence and performing to the low level expected of him.
 

3 – It creates competition between managers who want their favored candidates to win.

Managers sense that these ratings are a referendum on them as well as on their employees. As a result, ranking conversations often descend into Sue advocating for her proteges and Joe advocating for his protégés. At Microsoft article, the author talked about “horse trading,” in which Sue would go along with Joe’s desired rating for his employee if he would go along with her desired rating for her employee.
 

4 – It depends on the managers’ ability to assess and advocate.

There is evidence that an employee’s ABC ranking is more closely correlated with the manager’s ability to advocate for the employee and articulate her strengths than it is with the employee’s actual capability. Employees correctly see that and realize that the key to their survival is who’s supporting them, and how effective that person is as an advocate.
 

5 – It creates fear and competition between employees.

The use of ABC player evaluations – especially when combined with forced ranking – creates a fear-driven culture. Employees see that their fate is tied to their ranking, so they focus on competing with each other and sucking up to the managers who they think control their fate.
 

An Alternative To ABC Thinking

If you want to improve performance, manage and develop talent, and plan succession, here are some things you can do to avoid the above pitfalls.
 

1. Make sure managers and employees agree on what “good” looks like.

Do the hard work of identifying concrete, observable performance criteria – including both results and behaviors. Then share with employees and test their understanding. And when you conduct talent reviews, use these criteria to make sure you’re talking apples to apples and backing up your claims with behavioral examples.
 

2. Provide feedback to every employee on an ongoing basis.

Share your observations about strengths, limits, development areas, and how each employee is performing against your goals for them, using descriptive words, not judgments.
 

3. Don’t wait for a formal review to surface concerns about performance.

Raise the concerns directly and immediately with the person, diagnose the causes, and put in place a fitting remedy.
 

4. Understand the factors that affect performance.

Poor performance can have a range of causes – unclear expectations, structural or process roadblocks, skill gaps, or motivational conflicts. Don’t assume a person isn’t performing because they aren’t capable.
 

5. Build managers’ capability to have performance conversations.

Many managers have high anxiety about the prospect of conducting open conversations with employees about their performance. Teach them skills for having these conversations in a non-punitive way, and more importantly help them overcome the fears and concerns that make these conversations feel difficult or painful.
 
In the long run, if you adopt these practices, you’re more likely to have sustained high performance based on engagement and not fear. What do you think? What’s been your experience with talent reviews and employee ranking processes?

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