Thought Series: The wasteful scam of sorting people, stop wasting talent

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


“Sorry, there just wasn’t enough in the promotion budget this year. We’ve already allocated all the slots.”

“So many people wanted the Director position. We had our pick and such competition makes us a world class organization.”

“You’re on the bench for the next opportunity, but there is little movement at this level. Once people get here, they dig in.”

Speak with the well-intentioned organizational development folks, the managers with open positions, and executive coaches what makes good management material and who is likely to get fast-tracked, and they’ll say work is a meritocracy. There is only so much room as you climb the pyramid.

Or, they might point out that their job is to help the organization succeed, to beat the competition, to take on the burden of choosing from world-class talent.

All of these responses are dangerous, unhelpful and irrational. In a world where people get picked based on performance, this sends a bit of a mixed message.

As millions of people come to grips with their annual review, I’m hoping that they understand how little their results actually have to do with their ability to move upward.

When you’re starting out after college, and throughout the rest of your career, a single skill rises above all the others when it comes to hiring and promotion: Leadership.More than 80 percent of responding employers said they look for evidence of leadership skills on the candidate’s resume, and nearly as many seek out indications that the candidate is able to work in a team.

Team collaboration drives leadership. Collaboration results in higher motivation and morale stemming from greater trust between individuals and a sense of belonging to a community that is working toward shared goals.

Leadership drives relationships and trust. Trust in our public institutions, industries, and leaders is taking a severe beating. In the business world, the negative consequences from lack of trust are too numerous to list here. Probably the most devastating, however, is that it creates an “everyone for his/herself” attitude throughout the organization, especially at the lower levels. When me trumps we, individual development suffers.

If we’re a front line employee and we don’t believe senior management will do the right thing by us, we have no choice but to look out for ourselves. When we put our own agenda ahead of the organization’s, any chances of the company achieving its vision of winning go right down the drain.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Amazon, another technology giant and one of many technology companies with similar management practices, reports a “bruising” workplace. Employees appreciate working with smart colleagues but criticize the company for a lack of a work-life balance.

It is not due to a shortage of talent that there is a lack of leadership opportunities. Leadership should opportunities exist, I believe, to create a learning experience for both the team and the leader. When you develop others, you develop yourself. When teams grow and learn, organizations grow and learn. This is the sentiment behind a rising interest in developing “learning organizations.”[vii]

But growth requires change. Change can involve risk and trying new things. Not all of them will work. Part of engaging in creative thinking is actually investing in the discipline of thinking. Dedicating time to think of new ideas doesn’t guarantee they will be good. Some will work, some won’t. While this isn’t new information to anyone, organizations generally bend toward efficiency. Time invested in generating ideas that don’t move the needle forward today doesn’t contribute to being efficient. Only the good ones are rewarded and given attention. When we adopt policies or processes that punish people because they’re making mistakes, what’s the lesson?

If you get ahead for years and years because you were blessed with luck, it’s not particularly likely that you will learn that in the real world, achievement is based as much on how you show up as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, leadership roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences. Our culture is built around connection, personal magnetism, learning and the ability to not give up when things are hard.

But that’s not easy to sort for in organizations, so we take a shortcut and resort to trivial measures instead.

What if we prioritized leadership by doing?  What if we prioritized leading by example? What if we prioritized doing the work, setting an example, living the brand—not living to work, but being a teammate? I’m not talking about abandoning your existence to the company by adopting the Marissa Meyer 130-hour work week. I’m talking about the person, that while at work, is present for themselves and for the team. That is different than being present for the organization. They are not just in it for themselves. They are not contributing to a world where someone else has to fail for them to succeed. What if we fast-tracked those employees, and made it clear to anyone else willing to adopt those attitudes that they could be celebrated too?

What if you got picked because you were resilient, hardworking and prepared to engage in continuous improvement? Isn’t that more important than rewarding the employee who makes their numbers but succeeds at the expense of others, or who never takes the time to develops others?

Before we promote the stars in our teams, perhaps we can promote the employee who takes time to keep everyone in the game, including themselves, because it takes both kinds of people to beat the competition. This isn’t about taking the last kid to get picked for kickball and giving him a ribbon. This is about acknowledging the diversity of skills that it takes to compete and win. The star player can’t be a star without several assists along the way. There is no need to tell everyone they are a star. The fact is, everyone has development areas. Just tell them the truth. Tell them that every single person who has made a career of being the best (every single one of them) did it with hard work and motivation.

At an individual level, work is for personal fulfillment, for maintaining a standard of living and providing for a family. It is for intellectual stimulation. Work means many things to many people. Work, journalist Studs Terkel wrote, is about the search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”[ix]

Business is more than creating customers to buy things. It has to exist to provide a societal good. Therefore, our work has to exist in the context of providing a societal good. Taken collectively we have to think of our work as a net positive for society in some way.

We’re not spending nearly enough time asking each other: What is Work For?

Let’s talk about work and figure out what we’re trying to do, and why.