Mediocre Employees: Are They Disengaged, or Just Role Players?

Does your organization really need — or want — role players in your workforce?

The easy answer is “of course we do,” but what if what you consider to be a role player is actually a “B” player, or to use a little more pejorative term, a mediocre or average employee?

Derek Irvine dug into that topic here last month when he wrote about “B” Players? Here’s Why Steve Jobs Was Completely Wrong About Them. He noted that:

Too often, I hear “Who needs the B players?” This is a very short-sighted comment, because in even the strongest team, there are always B players, just as there are always those who are clearly the top performers. …

Every organization has a bell curve of performance for their employees with the vast 80 percent in the middle representing your “B” players. These are the people who grind out the work that makes it possible for your stars to shine.”

“Nothing wrong with being a mediocre employee”

A couple of readers challenged what Derek had to say under the theory that you always need to push for “A” players and an “A” team — just as Steve Jobs used to push for.

That’s why this post from The New York Times’ You’re the Boss small business blog is pretty interesting, because it got into the same “A” player vs. “B'” player debate when it asked Is It OK to Be a Mediocre Employee?

A reader of the blog makes the point to blog author and small business owner Jay Goltz that:

There is nothing wrong with being an average (mediocre) employee. Not everyone aspires to be in management. If the person meets the requirements of their current job, and they like the job and want to stay in the job, so be it. Stop trying to force people to get to the next level. The reality is that work is not the most important thing in everyone’s lives. People have more important things in their life than work. Work is simply a means to get the money we need to pay the mortgage and our other bills. Work is a low-priority event for most people. I’m only willing to do the bare minimum that it takes to get a paycheck every two weeks. As long as I am meeting the requirements of my job, than that is good enough. Don’t expect any more of me because I will not be a slave to any company.”

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a “B” player or an average or mediocre worker; that sounds like a totally disengaged employee.

Doing more than just the bare minimum

Jay Goltz agrees with that — sort of. But he also says:

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I get it … And I agree with much of what you say, including this: Stop trying to force people to the next level. I could not agree more … We would have a big problem if everyone wanted to move into management. And I am sure that many people feel the same way you do about work being a means to an end. As you say, if you are meeting the requirements of the job, you have every right to embrace your mediocrity. The difference between you and most people, I believe, is that you know you are a mediocre employee. In fact, you defend it. Good for you. An honest, self-aware person. And I certainly agree that no one needs to be a “slave” to a company.

But I have rights, too — and not just my right to an opinion. As the owner of a business, I have the right to avoid hiring someone who only wants to do the bare minimum to get a paycheck. In fact, if I hire too many people with that attitude, I will be out of business. This is Capitalism 101, survival of the fittest. I operate in a very competitive market. I don’t have any patents, any special marketing magic, or any secret recipes. My companies can only exist and grow if they do a much-better-than-average job.

One of the ways I try to ensure that is by hiring and keeping dedicated, professional people who want to do a good or even great job. While I have no doubt that some of my 115 employees consider their jobs, as you put it, simply a means to get the money they need, they still manage to do an above-average job at work. …”

Are we arguing over semantics?

This is an interesting debate because at least this small business owner makes it clear that he wants more than just people who are happy and content in their current job. He wants to hire employees who are eager to do better.

This cuts to the heart of the employee engagement debate, and it’s clear to me that what this small business owner wants are highly engaged workers who will strive to do more without having to be pushed or prodded to do it.

Is this also an argument about semantics? Well yes, because I also think that my friend Derek Irvine’s argument about needing “B” players is a good one as well.

So I wonder: are we debating the same things here, or is there a difference between true “B” players and workers who are just happy to be mediocre? If I get some good debate on this subject in the comments here, I’ll pull them together in another post.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “Mediocre Employees: Are They Disengaged, or Just Role Players?

  1. First off, since when is a B player “mediocre?”  I’ve always considered B players to be those who do above average work but don’t necessarily walk on water.  They are solid performers who want to do more than just get by.  If I have an employee who is mediocre and doing just enough to get by, I don’t want them.  My experience is that the majority of the workforce is at the B level and pulling most of the weight.  They may require a little more attention than the star employees, but that’s why you have supervisors.  The A players are few and far between, and I’ll try to get and keep them when I find them, but I can’t rely on them always being there because they are in high demand.  I’ll get rid of mediocre employees when I can. 

    And in terms of engagement–you can have extremely high level performers who are not engaged.  I’ve seen it.  You just won’t be able to keep them very long.

    1. And this is exactly why you want engaged employees. Transactional engagement is what makes high level performers do so well. They tend to focus on their role, their tasks and get results. However, as you mentioned, you’re not able to keep them for long. Emotionally engaged employees however are the jewels of every company. They go the extra mile and always perform great. Consequently, they achieve goals and results but on top of it, they are loyal to the company, share beliefs and values. In the end of the day that’s what makes them stay in an organisation; and that’s what makes them happy getting out of bed the next morning.

  2. What’s more dangerous is the B or C players that are not self-aware of their actual performance.  Many are smart, but lazy – and still feel entitled to promotions based on little more than being raised to feel they can do no wrong.  They are the ones that are dangerous to everyone else’s morale when they start complaining that their evaluations are unfair and they deserve more money and a better title.  All before the age of 30 usually.  If you’ve done the work, no problem, but first quit whining and show us some work!

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