“A players” and redefining your job

credit: nettsu via Flickr

Not long ago, I engaged in a conversation on Twitter about the de-motivating effects of placing extrinsic motivators on A players.

This resulted in a fun discussion about the nature of motivation and whether the concept of an “A player” is even a useful classification.

I’ll leave the discussion of extrinsic-vs-intrinsic motiviation stuff to Dan Pink. But what I don’t see is a really coherent explanation about what it means to be an “A player”, how a person becomes one, or whether the term has entered the MBA-buzzword graveyard with “proactive” and “synergy”.

Is the term “A player” fair, or even useful?

Popularized recently by the management style of Steve Jobs, the term “A player” has come into broad usage by management types who wish to sound knowledgeable. Which, sadly, is where good business terms go to die.

That said, the term does carve out a spot in your brain to understand that not all people in an organization are equally valuable. “A player” refers to the power plants of your organization: the people who supply an abundance of high-quality output.

This means that there are “B players” and “C players” who produce less useful output and are more likely to be sort of “along for the ride” in an organization.

“A player” is a role, not a permanent label

Yes, it is dangerous to use a term that looks and feels like a classification or labeling system for people, especially one that implies a judgement as to that person’s value. But it is a hard truth that some people are more valuable to an organization than others.

That said, it’s crucial to note that “A player” refers to a role a person plays. I’ve been an A player, a B player, and a C player at various times in my career, and sometimes even at the same job.

Identifying an A player

Whether you’re looking to hire and keep A players or trying to figure out if you are one, here are some observations I’ve made about people I’ve seen as A players:

Has a trail of accomplishments: A players leave behind visible, tangible results of their work, as they are results-oriented. A players ship.

Seeks out feedback: They don’t reject criticism outright, and actually seek feedback, since their ego is less valuable than getting something done.

Has confidence in own abilities: They’re not confident as in boastful, but as in the opposite of insecure. A players rarely shy from a challenge, knowing that it is a matter of patience and work to see something through.

Not big on seeking permission: They tend to choose the work they think will have the biggest impact and go for it, steamrolling obstacles in their way.

Self-evaluating and self-correcting: A players tend to introspect, are driven to improve themselves, and correct mistakes quickly.

Not interested in gossip: A players view “office drama” as a needless source of distraction rather than fodder for conversation.

Helps others succeed: A players are inspired, rather than threatened, by the success of their peers. They actively seek to help others become successful.

By this definition, B and C players are often insecure, complaining about office politics or “playing the game” against their successful peers. They hide their work, rarely shipping, in fear of criticism. They tend to wait for permission to move forward. They tend to wait for a lot of things to be in place before moving forward.

Redefining your role: How to become an A player

I believe that A players are generally B players who figured out that they alone are in charge of when they ship, what they ship, and the quality of their work.

The most important factor in becoming an A player is whether you can attach to a goal that is larger than your ego and insecurities. One that is worth risking failure for. One that is worth breaking the cycle of permission-seeking for. Preferably one that can be accomplished in a matter of a few weeks, lest you burn out before completing the goal.

With this goal burned into your brain, you’ll pull together the resources you need to accomplish it. You’ll naturally find someone to help you with gaps in your skills, because you’ll want to see this through.

You won’t have to work very hard to eliminate distractions, because the distractions that seemed so sweet and tempting before will taste bitter to you now. The desire to ask permission will be gone.

And once you’ve accomplished it, you’ll never want to go back to B-player-style work again. You simply won’t be able to tolerate it. It’ll drive you crazy.

Then, the work begins again of finding the next goal that is similarly motivating.

Yes, finding that goal is easier said than done, but I’ll bet you can find it if you pay attention to what is around you.

How to lose your A players

Many organizations don’t actively identify their A players until they start to leave, and management staff, in a panic, begins some misguided effort to get the remaining A players to stay.

Steve Jobs famously said “A players like to work with A players. B players hire C players.” This, of course, comes back to the fact that B and C players aren’t confident in their abilities, and need to hire people that won’t show them up.

A players form ad-hoc alliances whose goal is to ship, while B and C players tend to form committees whose goal is to prevent things from being done wrong.

A players don’t react well to committees, forms, or bureaucratic processes that add friction to the act of building and shipping.

Each point of friction adds up until A players realize that they aren’t able to operate at their full capacity. They may even verbally warn their management (who often aren’t receptive, or make empty promises of change). And being high-value employees, they know they can succeed somewhere else that promises less friction.

It’s a lifelong process

Some of the A players I’ve met seem as if they were born that way, but for most of us, it’s a lifelong process of self-refinement. A lot of my struggle is to subjugate my ego long enough to really seek and apply feedback.

But to individuals, I can promise that the benefits of developing yourself into an A player are abundant. No one has the world in front of them quite like high-performing individuals.

And to organizations, the benefits of cultivating an environment that rewards A-player behavior are even greater. If you’ll identify and reward your A players, they will drive a culture of results and shipping that defines the best companies in the world.


After posting this, I realized that people may take the wrong message from all this. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an introspective person. If you’re introspective, you have a leg up on 95% of the population. You’re well on your way and very well could be an A player already. Just because there’s still room to grow doesn’t mean you aren’t amazing already.

So take any self-criticism with a grain of salt, and realize that the fact that you’re even evaluating yourself puts you in the category of people I’ve defined above as A players.

Sell your principles (not your values)

Money by 401K on Flickr

Not that anyone’s offering, but I want you to know that my principles are available for sale or trade, if the right offer should come along.

It’s important to note that there’s a big difference, in my mind, between principles and values. This difference is subject to no small amount of interpretation, and you may not agree with my definitions, but let’s assume the following to illustrate a point.

Can we call for a definition?

Principles are beliefs based on observation. They are learned. They direct my actions.

Values are core philosophical understandings. They are discovered. They form my identity.

How we get them

Principles are based on experience, and mine seem to evolve at an accelerating pace as I age. I adhere the best I can to the principles I have at the time, but I’ve learned not to get attached to them. Several months ago, I had strong opinions on principles of good software development, but I now find myself taking the opposite position in many areas.

And that’s better than okay, it’s great. Evidence comes across, and your precious principle starts causing you pain, and you start refining your principle. For newer software developers indoctrinated with the idea of TATFT (test all the f****** time), the principle quickly evolves into something that a person can actually live with.

Currently, painful experience has taught me that I don’t want to be caught with any significant functionality in my code that isn’t covered by tests. So I test my code. Most of the f****** time.

That’s a principle. It’s not me, it’s just something I try to do.

Values are different. I’ve discovered my values when I read, hear, or see something that hits my natural frequency. It bangs my psyche like a gong.

When I first truly heard the George Harrison song “Within You Without You”:

“With our love, with our love, we could save the world… If they only knew!”

I pulled over in my car because I couldn’t see. I’d just spontaneously started crying. I still tear up when I hear it. That hit my exact natural frequency. Love can change the world. We can change the world. With love.

That’s a value. That’s me. That’s who I strive to be.

Dying on Principle Hill

There’s a hero fantasy that many of us share about dying for our principles. To use a contrived example: “Did you hear that when Bob was asked to spend Saturday working instead of with his family, he quit? He’s so principled!”

This would be much less likely gossip: “Did you hear that when Sandy was asked to work on a Saturday, she said she would, but needed an extra day next week to spend with her family? She’s so reasonable!”

When we pick a “hill to die on”, it’s often because we’ve mixed up our principles with our values. We can attach so completely to a principle that we wrap it into our identity, which shuts down our ability to reason about that thing.

How can you tell values from principles?

Separating values from principles comes largely with experience. But I don’t think a person gets to carry around very many values. So if you need two (or more) hands to count them, that may be a sign you’re mixing up the two.

It would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, for someone else to bribe, pressure, or convince you to violate your values. Could someone else coerce you into violating it? If so, it’s probably a principle, not a value.

And if you can cite specific examples of how your outlook or your life changed as a result of a realization or discovery, you very well could be talking about a value, and you want to hold fast to those when you find them (again, they’re few and precious).

Sell ’em, trade ’em, just trade up

Someone wants to give you a reward (or a paycheck) to do something that contradicts your principles? Sorry to tell you, it’s not black and white. It may very well be the right thing for you, in that moment, to exchange that principle for the reward you’ll receive.

If you feel a strong sense of conflict between your principles and your work, you’re not selling the principles themselves, you’re selling the right to violate them. This cedes control of them to someone else and breeds resentment.

The good news is that as soon as you assume ownership of your principles, you have the ability to trade or sell them, rather than just selling others the right to violate them. There’s no resentment for treading upon them, and no smug satisfaction for adhering to them, because it’s not you, it’s just something you try your best to do.

I think it’s healthy to learn to happily trade in principles, as long as you’re trading up. It complicates some decision making, as you’re always considering tradeoffs, rather than setting up hard and fast rules in your life and always coloring inside the lines.

Shifting to value-based decisions

Principles, to me, are something like training wheels for decision making. Perhaps the path to enlightenment is to graduate from principles entirely and understand your own values so well that you rely solely on your values as the basis for your decisions.

The first step on this path is to understand that your principles are subject to change, and that when they start causing you pain or conflict, it may be time to consider whether that principle still holds true for that situation. Remember: the principle is not you, it’s just something you try to do.

Lastly, take some time every once in a while to meditate on your values. What hits you like a bolt of lighting? What do you want the totality of your life to amount to? Once you find these, hang on to them, they’re not for sale.

Empathy, circuits, and self-deception

Sometimes in life, with no warning and no obvious desperate need, something comes from out of nowhere and knocks you out of a complacent stupor.

The book

Last year, someone loaned me the book you see to the left. I decided it looked like a good plane read and took it with me to Ruby DCamp. It wasn’t particularly well-written, and was far from a page-turner. But every few pages, it was like banging a gong in my brain:

Brandon. Wake the heck up. You are acting like a selfish douche.”

Basically, you need to go right now and buy it. It helped me connect the dots on much of human behavior, especially my own, and the ludicrous things we do to avoid having to change our worldview, even just a little bit.

The basic premise is: If you are treating anyone, anywhere, in any way, as if they’re an object instead of a person, you are chipping away at your own psyche by betraying what you know is right. You’ll then manufacture a story, a version of reality that protects you from dealing with this until you lose the ability to connect with others at all.

All of this caught me off guard. I began to realize that I was wantonly wrecking relationships all around me, merely to serve the need to be right and just. I cried hot tears of shame on the flight to think of the way I’d treated strangers, coworkers, even my wife.

My finely-honed skills of justification were leading me to the kind of callousness and under-the-surface anger that I can pretty much guarantee would have ended my marriage. Basically, pretty serious stuff.

There’s a prevalent metaphor in the book about people being “in the box” that I didn’t really latch on to. However, I was struck with the non-intuitive insight that anything you do to help while in this headspace isn’t really helping. It’s like trying to chart a course to the other side of the world if you believe it’s flat. You have to step into another worldview to do anything of any use.

The Circuit

So we have this big, huge problem in our lives. And no ability to solve it by any conventional means.

Guess what the secret is to stepping out of your worldview? To want it. That’s it.

If you decide to truly desire to understand how another person is feeling, you will almost immediately reverse the effects of objectifying another human, and you will begin to put yourself in their shoes.

Unlike almost anything else in life, you can wish empathy into existence.

You then begin to wish the best for this person. You may even wonder what you could do to help this person. You may even find that there is something you can do for this person.

So here’s the thought pattern I saw emerge from this line of thinking:

  1. Judgement/Objectification (or any act of self-betrayal)
  2. Justification (the story we tell)
  3. Realization of the act of self-betrayal
  4. Desire to empathize & correct the action
  5. Re-Humanization of those we objectify (and apology)

That’s a circuit. The goal is to close it as quickly as possible. (In IT parlance, it’s about Mean Time To Resolution, not Mean Time Between Failures.)

Two examples

I’ll give two examples: one from the book, and one from my life.

In the book, on of the first stories is of a husband who’s trying to get some rest, with his sleeping wife beside him. Their baby begins crying, which he tries to ignore. He commits the first act of self-betrayal by not helping. “I’m sure she’ll get up.”

Then the justifications. “Why isn’t she getting up?” “Doesn’t she care that I have work in the morning?” “She obviously is lazy and doesn’t care about my needs.”

So here’s a fully-concocted story that buries anger and resentment inside a person. But if he’d stopped, he could have realized that he she was just his loving wife, that she was sleeping, and perhaps she really needed his help with the baby that evening.

In my own life, I’ve spent decades training all my powers of observation, psychology, and analysis on trying to stitch together someone’s story… so that I can judge them. I still have this nasty habit.

Last week, my wife and I were fortunate enough to travel to Hawaii, and we spent a morning on a cycling excursion with a newly married couple. The young lady had nothing good to say about her trip. She was staying in the most expensive hotel and dining at all the finest restaurants on the island, and found faults in every part of her trip. The bed was too soft to sleep in. The food was disappointing.

I used my skills to project into the future for this couple, and see much trouble for this princess and her pea. And what did I get for my efforts? I got to turn this young lady from a human into a measuring stick that found me superior in every observable way.

But I couldn’t leave it there. My brain is now too aware of the concept of self-betrayal to let me get away with it anymore. I began to realize that here was a young lady that had one chance to have a memorable honeymoon, things kept going wrong for her, and she hadn’t yet gathered the life experience to be grateful for what she had. There might have even been something kind I could have done to help make her trip memorable in a positive way. I stewed over this for a while, apologized to my wife for the negativity, and went back to having a wonderful time.

And that’s just one tiny example of many dozens of acts of self-betrayal I commit on a daily basis.

Closing the circuit faster

Trying to close the circuit can be overwhelming.

You have to forge new neurological pathways, which is always uncomfortable. It requires that you assume that you are not necessarily noble and good and just, which chops your ego into little pieces. Many of us rarely get past Justification. Getting past Realization can seem impossible.

But here’s the amazing thing: if you simply expose yourself to this concept and it rings true for you, it will begin to seep into your thinking. You will no longer be able to enjoy guilt-free judgment of other human beings.

I still have these moments of judgement and anger with my wife, but I now have the gnawing sensation at the back of my mind, the Bat-Signal that tells me I’ve committed an act of self-betrayal. That part is automatic.

Then, I try to see how long it takes me to close the circuit. It still often takes me a day or two to come around, but I’m getting faster in many cases. Eventually, I hope to open and close the circuit so quickly that the net effect is that I no longer sit in judgement over (or objectify) anyone.

What to do next

How many times do I need to tell you? Go get the book! But you can play along at home even if you haven’t read it. The next time you find yourself angry or seething at a person, try to just want to know how they’re feeling. Start telling yourself their story instead of yours, and see where that takes you.

I am a relatively new practitioner of this type of thinking, but I can tell you that it will open your heart to serving others. This will lead you to real friendships, lasting relationships, contentment, happiness, and pretty much every measure of success that will matter to you as you look back on life.