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Managing C-players


Disciplines > Human Resources > Performance Management > Managing C-players

Solid C-players | Toxic C-players | Problem C-players | The no-C-player strategy | See also


One description of people at work and their performance is as A-, B- and C-players, where A-players are the high-achieving stars, the B-players are the solid, good-enough middle team and the C-players are the very limited bottom-end.

Solid C-players

Some C-players are very good at very little, but when that is all you need, this is just fine. If you do not want innovation or flexibility beyond their ability or motivation, then this is probably a time to let sleeping dogs lie.

Manage the solid C-players by telling them clearly what is wanted, keeping an eye on them until you are confident that they will keep doing what you need and then back off, only stepping to ensure they keep on track.

Like a good machine, a solid C-player only needs occasional maintenance and will happily do a basic job for as long as you care to employ them. They do not seek glory, high reward or promotion -- all they want is a steady job and enough money to pay their relatively low bills.

(Note: depending on the definition, 'C-players' sometimes implies poor performers or problematic people, in which case there are of course no solid C-players).

Problem C-players

Some C-players are not solid, requiring more management intervention than should be necessary. Problems typically fall into three categories: motivation, performance and personal, each of which requires particular attention.

Three types of problem

Motivation problems occur for example where the C-player finds the work boring or perhaps is aggrieved at their C-player rating. For self-esteem, we often like to think we are better than we really are, and many C-players believe themselves to be B-players or even A stars.

Performance problems occur where they simply do not have the skills to do their jobs. This may be spread across the range of activities involved or be specific skills which bring down their overall performance.

Personal problems can happen both at work and outside. At work, they may be difficult to get on with or otherwise have social issues, from dysfunctional introversion to being unpleasantly smelly. Outside of work, other callings may distract or drag them away from good performance, from family issues to medical problems. These can be tricky, as they may have legitimate reason, yet the dilemma still falls your way as they are unable to do their job properly.

Problem C-players can show up in the upper ranks of an organization, where issues can include the 'Peter Principle' of being promoted to their level of incompetence, or people 'retiring on the job', treating promotion as a reason not to work and fobbing it all off those below them.

Managing the problems

Managing problem C-players is generally a classic process of performance management. First draw attention to the issue in a formal setting -- casual requests to improve are far less likely to be recognized as being serious. Be tactful, but honest, testing that they truly understand that there is a problem and you are not going to let it lie.

If they have personal problems, carefully probe to find the facts. Beware of pathological C-players making these up or exaggerating them. Also be reasonably trusting and always careful to stay within the rules -- it is easy to fall foul of employment legislation on personal matters.

Get input also from others, in a 360-degree process that gets honest and fair feedback. When people see how others view them, they can often be shocked into action.
Give them specific and realistic goals to achieve, within a specific timescale. Make sure they have everything they need to do the job (no excuses!), giving them training if necessary. Then review their performance on the date agreed at the first meeting. Beware of excuses for poor performance or motivation -- C-players usually have many ready excuses for their failings. You can also give them to a B- or A-player as a management development opportunity, if this seems likely to be most effective. In any case, the C-players managers must be held accountable for effectively managing them.

If they are unable to improve, find a way of getting them into a position where they can contribute to the extent of their true ability and motivation. This is not always easy, as 'the right job' is seldom ready to hand. Again, be careful to stay within the rules if you are changing their terms of employment.

Finally, if other methods are unsuccessful (or if you lack the options to try other things), manage their exit. More than any other activity this is fraught with hazard and you must follow due process, for example giving two written warnings and a final warning.

Managing problem employees is not easy, but if you cannot do it or procrastinate, you might ask the even more difficult question of what level of player you are.

Toxic C-players

The toxic condition

Some C-players are not only problematic, they are positively damaging, harming relationships and the overall business. Some of these players may appear as A-players in their personal performance, always meeting and exceeding goals, yet they do so at a greater cost to the company, trampling on others and using people callously and generally spreading gloom and demotivation wherever they go. Toxic activities include:

  • Taking credit where it is not due
  • Blaming others for your errors
  • Blocking advancement of good people
  • Inappropriate questioning of management decisions
  • Turning other people into C-players
  • Recruiting 'yes-men' who will not challenge or think for themselves
  • Putting off good people from joining
  • Demotivating good people, thus depressing their performance

Toxic C-players often have some kind of psychological condition, including narcissism and psychopathy, such that they lack empathy and just do not care about others. They may be adept at hiding this with shows of concern and interest, but the bottom line is that they are your friend only as long as the value is flowing from you to them, and they will dump you or worse at the drop of a hat.

Toxic C-players may be found in the upper echelons of the company, where they seem safe from being fired and where they can gain and use power on a grand scale. This can also make them difficult to manage, as they typically drive themselves and brook no interference. In particular they are unlikely to take any real notice of any attempt to manage their behavior, although they may play along sufficiently to get you out of their hair.

These players can also be found lower down the order. There, they may spread their poison by gossip and innuendo. Their disaffection may come from being passed over for promotion or otherwise feeling slighted. They also may just be grumpy folks who like nothing better than a good bitch about other people or the company in general.

Managing toxic players

Managing toxic C-players is no mean feat, and if they get you in their sights, they might win the battle, which they may well take very personally.

For senior managers, it may be better to get professional help from a qualified executive coach or psychoanalyst. You might have to cloak the purpose in benefits for them, such as grooming for the next level up. An early job here is to get a reliable diagnosis -- if they are deeply toxic with no realistic chance of treatment then the best best is usually to plan either for their exit or some form of containment, for example by appointing a more tactful COO to work with a toxic CEO.

For those who are more manageable, the treatment is similar to those with performance problems, although if the toxic player is causing significant damage then the process may need to be accelerated.

The no-C-player strategy

One strategy that some companies take is simply to eliminate C-players. In an 'up or out' culture, if you are not promoted within a year or two of being in a post, then you are on your way out of the company.

Such strategies must, of course, be legal, and suit some industries more than others, for example where long experience is less important than raw intelligence and hard work, and where a ready supply of new applicants is available.

See also

Managing B-players, A-, B- and C-jobs


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