June 23, 2018

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The Problem With Classifying Employees Into Categories

Dear Joan:

Recently, I read your recent column devoted to a response from a person who said they had managed a staff of 75 people. One of their points is that people fall into three categories.

I am very happy that I never worked for that person or anyone else who decided that people fit into some specified number of categories. First, I suspect that the writer found it convenient to put people into one of three categories for his or her own convenience. I do not think that people actually fit into three categories; to me this is insulting and overlooks the concept of individuality.

I have been retired since June 2006, but worked for 28 years for a large, multinational corporation located in the upper Midwest of the United States. I was a member of one of their staff functions and have a doctorate of philosophy degree. I was promoted to a management position during my career.

The corporation human resource department developed various approaches over the years to motivate and reward employees. I am very thankful that the corporation never adopted the philosophy that people fit into one of three categories and then treated them accordingly.

The corporation had already recognized many years ago that employees are not all equally motivated, and thus managers and supervisors were challenged to help employees maximize their contributions to the corporate goals.

One of the issues for a manager, in my view, is to determine how to allocate their time to assisting individual employees, so they are encouraging each employee and at the same time not over investing their own time with those needing the most encouragement, at the expense of assisting the highly motivated employee to grow.

The manager also has the converse dilemma of wanting to spend the most time with the highly motivated employee because they are certain of a good return on their efforts. In the extreme, the lesser motivated employee and the manager's department suffers. Three niches classification does not seem to me to be a helpful concept.


I couldn’t agree more. But in fairness to the writer with the “three types of people” philosophy, he was attempting to generalize about enthusiastic employees (Cheerleaders, “successful people who will probably never leave”; generally satisfied employees (The In Betweeners, “who are happy they have a job”); and people who are unhappy (The Water Cooler Tribe, “who chatter about and spread negatives”). Of course, there are many other degrees of satisfaction in between.

Your point about finding each employee’s personal motivation is right on, in my opinion. Too often managers don’t take the time to find out what motivates and satisfies their employees. They are quick to communicate what the department wants—they set department goals, make assignments and establish measures-- but they often fail to ask the employee what he or she wants out of the deal. That is a lost opportunity because most people want to contribute and be valued and a boss who taps into that drive will get the most out of his or her staff.

I also agree with your assessment about where a manager should spend his or her time. I find that many managers get sucked into the black hole of chasing poor performers. Meanwhile, the good employees are ignored, which, over time, can extinguish their good attitude and dull their drive to succeed.

If managers spent more time encouraging and developing the good employees, I believe they would create a lot more productivity and better morale. I don’t necessarily agree with the writer’s assertion that Cheerleaders “are happy and probably will never leave”. They may be successful and enthusiastic but that can turn sour if their effort isn’t recognized and nurtured.

Meanwhile, problem employees should have expectations clarified, and then meet with the manager periodically to make sure they are on track. When possible, measures should be put in place that can be monitored and reported on by the employee himself, to drive home accountability.

In the final analysis, there are many different kinds of people. And the manager who takes time to get to know each one of them—and what makes them tick—will be the boss everyone wants to work for.

Confronting poor performance, or difficult behaviors, is difficult. Joan Lloyd’s How to Coach & Give Feedback learning system is a step-by-step approach to giving feedback to your employees, your coworkers, or even your boss. Actually reduces defensiveness and encourages open communication. Now available in CD!

-Joan Lloyd

Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, conflict resolution between teams or individuals, internal consulting skills training for HR professionals and retreat facilitation. Clients report results such as: behavior change in leaders, improved team performance and a more committed workforce.
Joan Lloyd has earned her C.S.P. (certified speaking professional) designation from the National Speakers Association and speaks to corporate audiences, as well as trade & professional associations across the country. Reach her at (800) 348-1944,, or
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