In any organization there are positive deviants (deviants from expected norms, who achieve results) and other ‘statistical abnormalities’ by nature or nurture. Some of them become trophy employees.
Definition: trophy employees are employees who:
(a) can be showcased internally and externally as an example of some sort of outstanding achievement
(b) who are symbolic or a status of the greatness of the organization
(c) who implicitly suggest that the organization is supporting or fostering this kind of people, like themselves
The trouble with trophy employees is that:
(a) the showcase may be a statistical anomaly that hides the truth behind the statistically common
(b) they may be a symbol of relative tolerance to their existence but not much more
(c ) the organization may be far from fostering, it is just using them
In the extreme, trophy employees may become what in political terms is called ‘useful idiots’.
Some types of trophy employees are:
- The maverick tolerated as maverick and showcased as a maverick, which implies being a maverick is something hosted by the culture, even if the numbers of mavericks can be counted on one hand.
- The award winning, Trainer of the Year, Most Outstanding Achiever in X, who may have achieved X not because of the company but despite the company. Get a National Award and the company becomes ‘Best in Class’ (to the astonishment of the other 1999 employees).
- The African American woman, the rising star who has become Senior VP of Y, which shows how the rights of minorities can be fostered and achieved in the land of healthy meritocracy. Small detail, the number of African American women in leadership positions in that company is negligible. However, she is proud to be a role model.
The ‘utility spectrum’ of these abnormal deviations includes:
- Abnormalities, by accident
- Abnormalities but the company is fostering them and is genuine
- Abnormalities but the company is not fostering, but happy to tolerate and perhaps showcase
- Abnormalities exploited as a trophy
- Abnormalities exploited as a trophy with, consciously or unconsciously, complacent, flattered and subservient incumbents: useful idiots
Look critically behind trophy employees. There may be a genuine company on a journey or a manipulation of spin to showcase greatness on the cheap.
Or anything in between.
Welcome and show solidarity with the former, call out the latter loud and clear.
Dr Leandro Herrero is the CEO and Chief Organization Architect of The Chalfont Project, an international firm of organizational architects. He is the pioneer of Viral ChangeTM, a people Mobilizing Platform, a methodology that delivers large scale behavioural and cultural change in organizations, which creates lasting capacity for changeability.
Dr Herrero is also an Executive Fellow at the Centre for the Future of Organization, Drucker School of Management. An international speaker, Dr Herrero is available for virtual speaking engagements and can be reached at: The Chalfont Project.