“B” Players? Here’s Why Steve Jobs Was Completely Wrong About Them

During the last few months, one of the top books on the bestseller lists has been the Steve Jobs autobiography.

It’s a fascinating read and doesn’t hold back on both the genius of Steve Jobs as well as his less attractive personality traits and leadership style.

An excellent summary of the latter recently appeared in Strategy+Business, highlighting how Jobs’ reputation as leader was both highly effective at generating great work out of teams, but highly damaging to members of those teams personally. The article points out:

When it came to teamwork, Jobs had a highly effective modus operandi with a dark side. He always challenged teams — from those involved in the early product efforts led by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak onward — to reach beyond the possible. A few strong people thrived on this, rising to become top performers who were highly motivated by the pride they derived from striving to meet the challenge.

But many others were needlessly frustrated. The price a leader pays for such behavior is the loss of people who need more encouragement along the way. Such an approach also undermines the emotional commitment of B players, who in most enterprises constitute more than triple the organizational teaming capacity of A players.”

“B” players are the bulk of your workforce

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.

Yes, Apple has delivered wonderful products that have changed the face of consumer technology, but think how much more might have been achieved without the loss of talented people who simply could not put up with the “needless frustration.”

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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.

What are you doing to celebrate, encourage and support your B players?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.


6 Comments on ““B” Players? Here’s Why Steve Jobs Was Completely Wrong About Them

  1. The author is correct  — the true A Players are few in number — but I hope he was using the reference to bell curves loosely.

    That idea may make sense for the military where it originated but no employer should ever adopt policies based on the idea that the A Players and C players are equal in number or even close to that.  Recruiting strategies hopefully are more selective than the military.

    The idea that even 10% are performing at unacceptable levels — from the early forced distribution policies — is also wrong headed and disasterous if adopted.

    Years ago a study at Bell Labs, which employed some of our best bench scientists and thinkers, concluded that even in a group of people with outstanding credentials, a few people stand out.

    In every work group, there are always a small number of A Players and many B Players.

  2. Steve Job’s use of the term A Players is relative to all of the people available from the entire population of talent. In this context, he could compose a team of only A Players.

    Others use the term A Players relative to the people within a select team or organization. If ranked within such a group (versus the entire population), performance levels will be distributed, with some performing better than others. However, ranking people based on their performance discounts systemic effects (i.e., people contribute a maximum of 25-40% to their performance)and human nature.  

    The bell curve is based on the assumption of random selection in search of “standard” or acceptable (not high) performers. Any company using the bell curve to rank its workers could immediately imporve workforce performance with more selective hiring. Companies interested in the highest performing workforce available should be using the Pareto curve for performance management. (See O’Boyle, E., & Aguinis, H. (2012). The best and the rest: Revisiting the norm of normality of individual performance. Personnel Psychology, 65, 79-119.)

    Person-job fit is the single best indicator of worker performance, such that exceptionally high performance (i.e., the so-called A Player) actually indicates perfect fit for purpose. Lower levels of performance indicate less fit for purpose. People are not inherently A Players. Someone considered an A Players will fail in jobs for which they are a poor fit. Any one performing below A level is in a job that is not a good fit for them . . . perhaps by choice (i.e., convenience, necessity) or by virtue of the systemic failings of labor markets. (See Pepitone, J., & Wyatt, R. (2011). Hiring for “fit” requires more than resumes, job descriptions, and interviews. Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership, November, 6-11.)   

  3. I’m a strong proponent of the theory, “those who demand nothing but the best are the ones who get it.” I think the point is not the A player or the B player, but the A team. The A team can be composed of unique individuals, ranging from hunters to gatherers. In my experience as a CEO, the most important factor was an “A” attitude. I asked for it, recruited for it and I got it.

  4. Can you say straw man? “who needs B players?” is not what the Steve Jobs quote means. This saying only applies to top levels of corporations. It means that you don’t want B players leading an organization. An adjoining quote is “In a startup, the first 10 employees will determine whether the company will succeed or not.” Taken together I think the context is clear.

  5. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense IMHO.

    The ‘A’ players we’re talking about here are out of the whole workforce available to you, not within a specific company.

    It’s totally possible to have a whole company of ‘A’ players—down to the lowest company rank (I guess the guy that cleans the toilets?).

    You seem to think that workers are ‘B’ players, executives ‘A’ players, then ‘C’ players..?

  6. The A,B,C player is a faulty model, because performance is so context dependent, as the first two commentators noted. This awful idea, along with the rank and yank system, are examples of a seemingly plausible theory that fails in practice. It is why success at one company is not a reliable predictor of success at another, contrary to popular belief.

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