The A Player Fallacy: Why It’s Time to Rethink the Myth
Seven years ago, I read Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson and was fascinated by the concept of A players. I saw how Apple succeeded because of their A Player strategy and how it set them apart from its competitors. But as much as the concept inspired me, I doubted whether I could become an A player. I wondered whether I had what it took to join the Apple team.
However, my doubts also made me think deeper about the concept of A players. Were we dividing the world into different divisions, creating a sense of superiority and inferiority? Was this not similar to some dictators who believed that only certain races could have higher capabilities? It was a challenging thought, but I still believed in Steve Jobs’ concept of A players.
Months later, I came across the book by Jack Welch, the CEO of GE, who had also implemented the A-player strategy in his company.
Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, was known for firing the bottom 10–20% of his employees yearly. When I first heard about this, it got me thinking about the implications of such a policy. How could someone be an A player one year and then perform poorly the next year? Was it fair to judge someone’s worth solely on their performance in a specific period? What about factors outside their control, such as changes in the market or company strategy?
As I thought more about it, I realized that the policy could create a culture of fear and competition, where employees were pitted against each other rather than working collaboratively towards a common goal. It could also lead to a lack of diversity of perspectives and experiences, as employees who may have potential but struggle in certain areas are quickly removed from the company.
Moreover, the policy could negatively impact employee morale and job satisfaction. Employees who feel their jobs are at risk may be more likely to engage in unethical behaviour or cut corners to meet performance metrics, which could ultimately undermine the company's success.
Later, I discovered a book on Marissa Mayer and The Fight to Save Yahoo. The book raised even more questions in my mind.
Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, implemented a version of Jack Welch’s strategy of firing the bottom ten percent of employees. However, implementing this strategy at Yahoo led to several problems and criticisms.
One of the main criticisms of this approach was that it created a culture of fear and anxiety among employees, as they were constantly worried about being identified as part of the bottom ten percent and losing their jobs. This hurt morale and productivity, as employees focused more on protecting their jobs than innovating and taking risks.
Moreover, the strategy of firing the bottom ten percent was seen as a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution, as it did not address the root causes of underperformance. Instead of focusing on development and improvement, the strategy was focused on eliminating those who were perceived as underperforming.
Furthermore, the strategy was criticized for being subjective and potentially biased, as it relied on managers’ assessments of their employees’ performance rather than objective measures. This raised concerns about fairness and transparency in the performance evaluation process and potential discrimination against certain groups of employees.
In the case of Yahoo, implementing this strategy also led to several legal challenges, as some employees claimed that they were unfairly targeted or discriminated against in the performance evaluation process.
The incident made me question the A-player strategy even more.
However, as I delved deeper into the topic by reading various books, I realized there was more to success than just talent and achievement. The first book that shattered the myth of A players was “Grit” by Angela Duckworth. One of the key concepts that the book introduces is grit, which is defined as the combination of passion and perseverance towards long-term goals.
Interestingly, Duckworth’s research shows that passion is not necessarily something we are born with but something that we develop over time through deliberate practice and the number of hours we spend on a particular activity. This flies in the face of the A player myth, which suggests that some people are naturally gifted and are destined to succeed while others are not.
Moreover, the book highlights the importance of perseverance, which is the ability to stick with a task despite setbacks and failures. This, too, challenges the A-player myth, which suggests that success is based solely on talent and achievement.
One of the book's most compelling aspects is how it highlights the importance of effort in achieving success. Duckworth’s research shows that effort is more important than talent in achieving success and that people who persist in their goals are likelier to achieve them than those who give up easily.
The book challenges the idea that only A players can become passionate about their work. Instead, it suggests that anyone can develop passion and succeed by focusing on deliberate practice, effort, and perseverance. By doing so, individuals can cultivate their passion and achieve their long-term goals, regardless of their innate talent or initial interest in the activity.
As I continued exploring passion and success, I came across another book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is another influential work that challenged the concept of A players.
The book explores the idea of flow, which is the state of complete absorption in an activity, to the point where time seems to fly by, and the person feels fully immersed in what they are doing.
Interestingly, the book shows that flow is not just about talent or achievement but also about the environment in which the activity occurs. In other words, creating the right conditions can enable anyone to experience flow, regardless of their innate ability or talent.
One key factor contributing to flow is a sense of challenge and the ability to improve one’s skills continually. This challenges the A player concept, which suggests that some people are naturally gifted and are destined to succeed while others are not.
The book shows that sustained interest in work is not just about being good at something but also about the ability to improve one’s skills over time and face increasingly challenging tasks. By raising the skill level and challenges, individuals can achieve a state of flow, leading to sustained interest and engagement in work.
Moreover, the book highlights the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in achieving flow. When individuals have control over their work, the ability to continually improve their skills, and a sense of purpose and impact, they are more likely to experience flow and sustained interest in their work.
Therefore, the flow concept shatters the A player concept by showing that sustained interest and engagement in work is not just about innate talent or achievement but also about creating the right conditions and opportunities for individuals to improve their skills, face challenges, and find purpose and meaning in their work.
Later, when I came across books on neurobiology and emotions, I got a few more points that shattered A Player's myth.
The books showed that success and sustained interest in work are also about how our brains are wired and our emotional connections to our work. Emotional states such as happiness, resilience, and compassion can be developed through intentional practices such as meditation and mindfulness. This challenges the A player myth by showing that emotional states are not just innate traits but can also be cultivated and developed.
One of the books explains how the brain develops skills through deliberate practice and the formation of new neural connections. Another book explores the role of social relationships and emotional intelligence in shaping our success and well-being. The book argues that connecting with others, reading their emotions, and responding appropriately are crucial for success and happiness. It challenges the A player myth, which suggests that success is based solely on individual talent and achievement.
Moreover, books on neurobiology and emotions emphasize the role of social and environmental factors in shaping our experiences and behaviours, challenging the A player myth by showing that sustained interest and success in work are not just about individual characteristics but also about the environment and social relationships that we are exposed to.
Lack Of Diversity
A team of A-Players can also be problematic because it often leads to a lack of diversity within teams. When organizations prioritize hiring only the top talent or A players, they may unintentionally exclude individuals from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
This lack of diversity can negatively affect the organization, such as reduced innovation, creativity, and problem-solving ability. When teams are comprised solely of A players, there may be a tendency towards groupthink, where everyone shares the same ideas and approaches, limiting the team’s ability to think outside the box and develop innovative solutions.
Moreover, teams lacking diversity may struggle to connect with a broader range of customers and stakeholders, limiting their ability to understand and meet their needs effectively.
Therefore, organizations must consider the potential drawbacks of prioritizing A players over diversity and inclusion. By creating diverse teams in terms of background, experience, and perspective, organizations can harness the power of multiple viewpoints and approaches, leading to more innovative and effective solutions.
When organizations focus solely on hiring A players, it can lead to a toxic and exclusive culture prioritising individual achievement over collaboration and teamwork. This can negatively affect the organisation's and its employees' overall health and well-being.
For instance, when only A players are valued, there may be a tendency towards competition and individualism, where employees are encouraged to prioritize their success over the team's success. This can create a cutthroat environment where employees are pitted against each other, leading to stress, burnout, and a lack of trust among team members.
Moreover, when only A players are valued, there may be a tendency towards elitism and exclusivity, where employees who do not meet the criteria of an A player are marginalized or excluded from important opportunities. This can create a sense of division and resentment among team members, leading to a toxic work environment that is detrimental to the organisation's overall culture.
In conclusion, the concept of A players can be problematic when it leads to a narrow and exclusive view of talent and achievement. By focusing solely on hiring A players, organizations may unintentionally exclude individuals from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, leading to a lack of diversity and negative impacts on the organisation's culture. Therefore, organizations need to be mindful of the potential drawbacks of prioritizing A players and work to create a culture that values inclusivity, collaboration, and diversity to support the well-being and success of all employees.