Let’s say an employee — let’s call him John — takes initiative to advance the team’s efforts to reach a goal.  After much convincing he had team alignment, but his name was all over this project.

His idea and its implementation fail.   Is his failure a good thing or a bad thing?   By what criteria should we decide?

Did John exhibit initiative?   Did John think outside the box?  Did John take a risk that was calculated?  Did John show loyalty to the team’s goals?  And let’s assume John is loyal to the company, and consistently gives more than the minimum required effort here, meaning you have measurable signs of employee engagement in this individual performer.

In part it would depend on how he handled his failure.  Did he hide behind the team alignment?  Did he own his failure?  Did he try to blame someone else?

Then again, in part it would depend on how the culture (i.e. leaders) handle failure in general.  Do they shoot first and ask questions later if ever?  Do they reward quick exposure of errors, or is this person better off hiding out, letting the failure show itself later — preferably much later, when his association with the project will be less visible?

What if John has had prior successes, will this impact the outcome?  What if John is relatively new to the organization, meaning he has no track record?  What impact will lack of prior knowledge of John’s effectiveness in THIS setting have?  Assuming he was appropriately hired as an A-Player, will he be given a second chance to take initiative?  What tolerance does the organization have for risk?  What is the nature of this organization’s support of initiative?

By now you should be less clear than you might have been at the beginning because we are into the murkiness of the “squishy people stuff” that leaders want to avoid, sometimes at great cost.

If you’ve associated some of this to your own organization are you are looking in the mirror and asking yourself, “Would I take a risk around here that had a chance of failing?”

If the answer is no, you are in an organization — or the part of an organization — that has very little innovation going on.  It is also likely that if you are capable of being an A-Player, you are not playing your A game.

You may also be in the part of the organization where A-Players are more likely to be fired or leave than B-Players.  Why would I make this association?  For the following reasons and many others I haven’t thought of:

Why are A-Players Fired?

  • A boss who is not effective is afraid that his star direct report will be promoted over him, so shoot him when he fails, thereby getting rid of the competition for performance.  This falls in the human range of jealousy.
  • Personality conflicts can arise when the A-Player is more popular or raises the boss’ risk by going against the grain, causing the boss to want this person gone because he’s too hard to manage.  Another version of jealousy.
  • B-Players find excuses and champions for their excuses in high places.  Self-preservation requires the better performers be ousted.
  • Politics.  Somebody’s friend has a position of authority.
  • The drama triangle.  See previous week’s blog for details.  All of the above play out in the drama triangle.

Why do A-Players Leave Voluntarily?

  • The company tolerates low standards of performance.
  • The company’s lack of tolerance for risk.
  • The company’s lack of innovation.
  • The company’s lack of appreciation for playing full out in the midst of mediocrity.

People leave people, not organizations — so if the company does not provide an environment where A-Players thrive, you have a troubled company.

If you are not experiencing just a little discomfort on a daily basis and testing your edges, you may be playing it safe, sleeping on the job like this cat, basking momentarily — but are you fully self-expressed?   Are you engaged?  I would guess not.  If you lead a team, if you are experiencing some guilt about now perhaps it’s time to wake up.