Even if they deny playing favorites or viewing employees by tiers, every manager or supervisor keeps a mental label on the kinds of folks they corral.
Some are superstars, others are works-in-progress, a few may be the old-reliables, so on and so forth. The best leaders don’t confuse their labels with judgments for judgements sake, but rather use them as a way to best know the capabilities of their team and whom to allocate bandwidth to or from.
My favorite trifecta of these labels was introduced to me by one of my business partners and friends, Ron Gibori. His approach says that there are typically three kinds of employees: Lifters, Shifters and Drifters.
I’m sure you can gather an idea of who these labels describe, but a deeper dive into each one of these characterizations may help you identify the kinds of people you work with and best serve their tendencies.
Lifters are those special people who spare no mental expense to get a project to its maximal value. They may volunteer to take on extra work in a pinch or they may offer that special nugget of inspiration that encourages their coworkers to aim higher. They are the people that you never have to light a fire under and they are undoubtedly my favorite kind of team player.
That said, Lifters are not without a need for managing. Sometimes Lifters may bite off more than they can chew, or worse, you may actually give them too much to chew in the first place. In most cases, there is roughly a 20–60–20 split of Lifters, Shifters, and Drifters in an organization. It can be attractive to have the 20% of Lifters start to pull weight that Drifters have offloaded. I have certainly fallen into the trap of assuming that Lifters can pull anything off if handed to them.
“They’re my best and brightest, surely they can handle it!”
They might very well handle it, yes, but at the cost of their own sanity or that extra effort I’ve come to expect from them. Be wary of overburdening your Lifters this way.
I’ve written about burnout before, but I’ll reiterate that burning out high-achieving employees is as ineffective a management choice as hiring employees who are never willing to go the extra mile in the first place. Check in with them like you would for any other employee and make sure they aren’t overextending themselves; it could mean all the difference to their mental capacity and the project quality as a whole.
Despite the high praise I’ve thrown to Lifters, do not assume that Shifters are without distinction. Shifters are the facilitators on the team that put the pieces together and form the base for your Lifters to enhance. Ideally, this will be the bulk of a team.
The danger in leaving Shifters unchecked is allowing the bureaucracy that happens between point A and point B to hinder their movement. It’s not unusual to catch a team of trustworthy Shifters start to traffic jam themselves because someone in the graphic design department is waiting for word from the web department who is waiting for word from the account team, etc. If the normal flow of work jams, then the Lifters have less time to work their magic and you start playing catch up. If your Lifters have also been left unchecked or are already swamped, you are playing catch up even more desperately.
You may depend on Shifters to get the work done, but they’ll depend on you to keep their goals and support system well-defined. Effectively leading Shifters may be a simple matter of eliminating an extra approval step or responsibly moving tasks to more available team members. This is what I consider classic managerial workflow and should be top-of-mind for a competent leader.
Drifters are the last 20% of a team and hopefully make up even less than that. Drifters are going to be those folks who check-in every day and promptly check-out of their responsibilities. I could write a book on ways employees may fall into the Drifter category, but I’ll leave it at the plain fact that you will sometimes have to manage people who do not meet minimum expectations and begin to weigh everyone down.
The best way to avoid this is to be crystal clear in your hiring process. I like to make job descriptions by listing key tasks, the processes to achieve those tasks, and the way in which success is measured. Ambiguity in job descriptions allow wishy-washy job seekers to slip through the cracks and jeopardize your output.
If you find that someone in your organization is receding into Drifter territory, then it is time for those difficult discussions to see if they are fit for their role. I advise you to not give up outright on Drifters if you can help it. There is always the possibility for redemption if you communicate with them to make the right adjustments. If those adjustments are made and improvement is minimal then it may be time to let them drift along elsewhere.
Use your better judgment and don’t allow Drifters to steal precious bandwidth from the rest of your coworkers.
Don’t Be Rigid
Ron and I would be flattered if you adopt the Lifter, Shifter, Drifter mentality, but we understand if you are set in your own methods of categorizing your team’s players. I’m sure there are similarities even if the labels are named differently. No matter the method, I highly advise not thinking too rigidly about them.
It can be disappointing to see a Lifter’s quality wane and moving towards standard Shifter territory, but don’t forget that Shifters are by no means supposed to represent the “bad” folks on a team. It could be just what a Lifter needs to be reinvigorated down the line or it can open the opportunity for someone else to step up. I often find that people are a mix of these labels too. The best Shifters are probably doing lifting too, but might not have the unique spark or stress-capacity of your best Lifter. If your well-defined standards are being met or exceeded, do not waste time fretting about idealized versions of people.
Labels are great to help you stay organized and determine where to focus your organization’s energy, but always be attentive to where people fit best and stay flexible when necessary.