Recent years have seen a heightened emphasis on (and, in some cases, breathtaking levels of rewards for) the superstar performer. From McKinsey's War on Talent research to the popularity of the Topgrading book and phenomenon, organizations have been urged to single out and aggressively tend to their "A" performers.
A similar emphasis on individual performance lies at the foundation of merit pay, arguably the oldest form of pay for performance and - in many organizations - the only type of performance based compensation in place for the bulk of employees. In fact, one of the biggest complaints aired about merit pay is the difficulty of disproportionately rewarding top performing individuals with small salary increase budgets. And now pressure is pushing a number of businesses to (wisely, in most cases) implement broad-based variable pay plans, many of which (not so wisely) are tying awards heavily or entirely to individual performance.
To be clear, I am not against rewarding high performers nor am I advocating getting rid of merit pay. But as I think about our collective struggles with merit increases and our fascination with superstar performers, I continue to be haunted by the story of Shane Battier, which I posted about here. Battier is the N.B.A. player whose own conventional performance statistics are utterly unremarkable, but whose presence on the court consistently makes his team perform better and his opponents consistently worse. I am reminded of how far most of us have yet to go in measuring the contributions of employees whose presence "in the game" inexplicably makes the whole team perform better. I do realize that most performance management programs include an element titled "teamwork", but I have to wonder how many managers truly understand and appreciate the nature of how their teams work and the subtle, often unnoticed ways that people help their coworkers shine ... or cause them to struggle.
Here's my point. When merit pay and individual rewards are the only games going - or where they clearly dominate the reward package - I wonder how much of the struggle to accurately measure and reward performance is due to a gnawing sense that our conventional tools and metrics are missing something important, something we can't articulate but realize is there. While some of the issue can certainly be traced to a "tragic" lack of management courage and honesty, could it also be that our current programs too often force managers to "rate" the Shane Battiers in their domains as "B" players when they know in their hearts that this isn't right or true?
To me, this is one more reason why balance in our reward programs is so important, and why measuring and rewarding group as well as individual performance is critical. Group level rewards, team or organization-wide incentives as one example, may not single out and appropriately reinforce the Shane Battiers of the corporate world, but they do accomplish something key. They send, and put money behind, the message that contributions to the team matter, whether or not you are in a position to notice and acknowledge all the nuanced ways that they happen.
And that is huge.