A players, B players, All players


“We find the true person only through group organization. The potentialities of the individual remain potentialities until they are released by group life. Thus, the essence of democracy is creating. The technique of democracy is group organization.”

Mary Parker Follett, The New State


I just had a conversation about employees with a good friend of mine who runs a business where “A clients need A players” came up. To be fair, he quickly said “I know you believe all employees have at least some A-level qualities/skills.” I do. Generally speaking, I believe most businesses squash the A-level ability in most people and the waste of human potential is immense. Certainly, some people have specific skills better than other people and ambition fluctuates person-to-person (ambition should never be conflated with skills), but, there is such a waste of human potential particularly in what many call ‘the workers’ or the blue-collar jobs or what leadership typically deems “the doers.” The bottom line in the discussion I was having was “I can’t tell you if you should be hiring anyone, or even who, if I don’t know if you are maximizing the people you have.”

But let’s get to potential.

In the 1980s Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester defined the six main reasons people work: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. Since then, most research has suggested the first three motives tend to increase performance, while the latter three hurt it.

  • Play is when you are motivated by the work itself. You work because you enjoy it, e.g., creating learning programs or problem solving how to break through to each person. Play is our learning instinct, tied to curiosity, experimentation, and exploring challenging problems.
  • Purpose is when the direct outcome of the work fits your identity. You work because you value the work’s positive impact on, or for, other human beings.
  • Potential is when the outcome of the work benefits your identity. In other words, the work enhances your potential.

Since these three motives are directly connected to the work itself in some way, they will improve performance to different degrees. If we want employees to have the cognitive ability, flexibility and agility needed to solve complex problems and collaborate effectively (whether face-to-face or remotely) as well as being able to develop and apply qualities such as critical thinking and creativity, we need to consider what we can do to enable those abilities to flourish and thrive and potential seems to be a rich mine for personal progress.

Which leads me to leadership (or nudging).

The conscientious nudger seeks to design systems and processes to help people make better choices for themselves. That said. Any choice architecture begins with sensemaking. For example, losses loom larger than gains in our minds and this steers motivation within sensemaking and choicemaking. Potential is found not only in curiosity & learning but in accepted risk and acceptable losses. All of this can be crafted in effective sensemaking. What I mean by that is if everyone makes sense of situations in the same way, or with similar characteristics, the choice architecture (and its boundaries) is crafted by the sensemaking and not through any leader (this is called The Law of the Situation). Therefore, the leader simply nudges people with a common sensemaking framework toward potential solutions, nudges curiosity and nudges probabilistic thinking so that people can explore – which is where potential is always found.


“Having a better theory of emergent organization would have a lot of practical benefits, allowing us to generate or simplify sets of rules that will result in productive ends.”

John Miller, Science of Complex Systems


Unfortunately, too many leaders inhibit people from asking questions that once seemed too absurd to consider and thus they prevent people from probing for patterns and insights that once resided in the realm of the unknowable. Potential explores limits and imitations. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge limits but in doing so it should not amount to a dismissal of potentials.

Which leads me to principles.

Any time we seem to discuss A players, B players or any types of players we inherently create a warped competitive environment. I am not suggesting a business shouldn’t encourage some competition but it should be competing without feeling like it is competition or you are being competitive – you compete with stagnancy & entropy. This is when you are simply attempting to maximize your own potential and skills assuming your best will be, well, your best – win, lose or draw. This also assumes you believe your best will demand everyone else to bring their best so that even in a competitive environment if you ‘lose’ it Is simply because everyone played it the best they could.

So let me offer some principles:

  • Human potential represents an organization’s main source of productivity

  • Technology augments people, people don’t complement technology, potential emerges from augmentation

  • An individual’s potential is not defined by one skill, but rather all skills/abilities (of all depths/dimensions) an individual has

  • The highest organizational productivity, progress, profitability is found through maximizing opportunities efficiently and, simultaneously, effectively maintain productivity, progress & profitability

I tend to believe if you follow these principles you will just have team players, no A, B, C or whatever, and you will increase the probability these players will maximize their potential and, as a consequence, the business successes will increase. Ponder.


Written by Bruce