The prevalence and extreme nature of star systems in organizations today contribute to widespread employee disconnection and disengagement, particularly among core employees.
Employees can be regarded as stars, core employees, or strugglers. Stars are superior performers. They are either a part of senior management or on track to move up the organization’s hierarchy. Core employees are valuable contributors but not stars. Strugglers perform poorly, some for temporary reasons and others because they may not fit well in their roles or with the organization.
Star systems affect the economic, political, and social aspects of organizations. Leaders are more likely to favor stars economically by paying them more; politically by keeping them more informed, listening to and considering their points of view; and socially by spending more time with them. Be assured, the favoritism is noticed. The star system is similar to a caste system: the stars are Brahman or gentry, strugglers are the untouchables or peasants, and core employees fall somewhere in between. This system makes most employees feel like second-class citizens.
Please understand that I do not oppose linking rewards to performance. I do believe, however, that it can be carried too far not only economically—an issue that the media regularly focuses on—but also and perhaps more important, politically and socially, especially in light of the value provided by core employees.
Understanding Core Employees
Research by Thomas De Long at Harvard Business School and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan of Katzenbach Partners sheds some light on categorizing employees. Their research has shown that “B players” (whom we prefer to call core employees) are just as critical, and often more so, to an organization’s success as its stars. Core employees comprise the vast majority of an organization’s employees. They are often just as intelligent, talented, and knowledgeable as stars, yet they differ from them in several respects:
- Core employees are less likely to call attention to themselves.
- Core employees are less likely to leave their current employers for greener pastures.
- Core employees are quietly dedicated to their work and to their teammates.
Not all core employees are alike. Some core employees are former stars who now seek greater work/life balance. Others are “go-to” players who help their colleagues navigate the organization. Still other core employees are “truth tellers” who, although blunt at times in their criticism, help ensure the organization addresses important issues that others may be less willing to raise.
With the prolonged state of employee disengagement and disconnection, there is good reason to believe that companies are vulnerable to losing many core employees in the years ahead. The reason: core employees feel their ideas and opinions are not sought or heard, and they are not respected or recognized for their work. At some level this lack of consideration is discouraging, and over time they become frustrated. Although they know that they’re valuable, feeling underappreciated keeps them from putting their hearts into their work.
Other factors contributing to the disconnection and disengagement of core employees are the stream of high-profile cases of corporate malfeasance, years of downsizing, and the compensation differential between the company’s stars and the rest of the employees. Employee loyalty has waned; the relationship between most workers and leaders has eroded. Whether leaders realize it or not, they are sending the message to core employees that they are second-class citizens and that shareholders and the company’s stars are one team while the rest of the employees are another.
How to Engage Core Employees
The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of the stars. Organizations need to treat everyone with dignity and respect within a meritocracy that allocates important projects to stars while giving core employees opportunities to prove that they can be stars too.
Here are three practices that will help engage and improve the contribution of your core employees.
- Vision Sessions – Share your vision with core employees, why it’s important, how you plan to get there, what your top 3-5 goals for the year are, and what their role is to help achieve those goals.
- Value Sessions – Show you value your core employees by asking them individually questions such as: “How are you?”; “What are your interests outside of work?”; “What are your career goals and how can I help you achieve them?”
- Voice Sessions – Seek the opinions and ideas of your core employees by bringing work issues before them, especially on matters that are important to them and that are related to actions you expect them to implement. Begin by sharing what you’re thinking then ask them what’s right, wrong, and missing from your thinking. Listen to what they say. Don't criticize. Thank them. Consider what you heard. Implement the best ideas. Give credit where it’s due.
When leaders communicate Vision to core employees, Value them and give them a Voice, they feel connected and engaged, and, as a result, give their best efforts and align their behavior with your goals. This creates a win-win-win for your core employees, for you and for your organization.
More From Michael Lee Stallard
Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.