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The Darwinian Workplace: Kill the Weak and Drain the Strong

Posted by on June 4, 2012

Recently Harvard ran an article published by Serguie Netessine and Valery Yakubovich (from Insead and ESSEC) called “Getting Your Employees to Compete Against Each Other” and “The Darwinian Workplace.”  Naturally this caught my attention.

According to the article:

“By using technology to create a form of the leaderboard typical in sales organizations, innovative firms are infusing their workplaces with competitive spirit.”


“Instead of distributing work evenly among employees, winners-take-all organizations allocate according to merit: Better workers take more assignments, and the others get what remains. The model exploits the fact that workers differ dramatically in productivity because of such factors as skills and attitude, which can be hard to assess when hiring. Over time, it may induce low performers to quit, leading to a higher-performing workforce and a constantly rising bar.”

I’m not sure where to begin.  Let’s start with a question…would you want to work at such a company?  A company that in effect is trying to breed only the strong and kill off the weak?  Sounds like something we have seen in the past in well known historical events no?  In this type of an organization you will ALWAYS have someone that is going to be at the lower end of the totem pole and those that are at the top will be drained and worked to their maximum capacity.  Stress in the workplace is already enormous, can you imagine what this would do?  I’ve researched and worked with hundreds of companies from all over the world.  I can’t say that anyone I have ever spoken or worked with has every told me about this type of an approach where they work.  In fact, the entire enterprise collaboration shift we have been seeing has been focused on the exact opposite of this.

Now before going on I should mention that the authors did provide a bit of a disclaimer in one of their comments:

“As we emphasized in the article and as I already discussed here below, the system we propose does not work in situations that call for team work (such as construction). Nowhere in the article did we claim that the system applies universally: it works well, however, when employees’ tasks are very independent and easily measurable.”


“As we stated in the article, this will not work well in any environment in which team effort is more important than individual effort.”

The example sited in the article was a restaurant since naturally servers don’t work together and are all out for themselves (*sarcasm*), as are those who work at call-centers (another example mentioned in the article). One of our clients at Chess Media Group happens to be a call center which works with some of the largest and most well-known brands in the world.  After just having spent some time with them recently I can tell you that this approach would cause far more harm than good.  The call-center employees I saw worked together and loved building relationships with their customers on the phone.  They were proud of the companies they represented and enjoyed their work.  They helped each other, they trained each other, and they grew together…as a team.

The disclaimer states that this won’t work for any organization in “which team effort is more important that individual effort.”  So in other words if you want an organization where employees are all trying to go against each other (with the support of management mind you!) then this is the perfect solution for you.

I think the authors are offering a very misguided approach to “gamification” which seeks to INCENTIVIZE and ENCOURAGE employees using game mechanics and game concepts not rid organizations of employees who are “weak” while trying suck all the juice out of those who are “top performers.”  In fact, this is probably what happens when gamification backfires!

The comments left on the article are mostly all harshly against this concept.  One commenter in particular, “I,Borg” made some absolutely spot on observations, perhaps one of my favorite is:

“This is frightening. Does anybody really want to work in a place where all day you look at your colleagues and realize they are plotting against you, and management is encouraging them to, instead of finding ways to get everyone to work together?  If this model was applied to any kind of real work, where things actually need to be accomplished, people would get hurt and killed this way.  You’re talking about people’s livelihoods, not some fraternity fund-raiser.  Of course they don’t object when you push them into this nightmare.  They’re terrified to.”

The authors also make several additions in the comments section that this helps organizations from removing employees which aren’t a good fit.  I always thought that’s what part of the hiring, training, and advancement programs were supposed to do.  I guess we should just skip all of that, hire random people to do jobs for us and then weed out the ones who “aren’t a good fit.”  In fact, why don’t we take everyone, put them into a circular arena, give them swords, and see what happens.

The article doesn’t site any data unfortunately, and in fact, I’d be curious to see how this type of an approach would play out at Insead and ESSEC, oh wait that’s right, that would mean that they wouldn’t be able to write this article together…

  • Yw

    hmm.. this actually sounds a bit like how Jack Welch manged GE.. 

    Probably only the super competitive will enjoy working in such environment..

    • It certainly does.  I’ve actually been meaning to read some of his books as I was quite interested in how he run the company.  I think there is a difference between closing down units which are generating less than a desired profit and cutting under-performing employees.  In the authors example employees are not under-performing by some metric, they just aren’t performing as well as the top performers.  Jack Welch also did quite a lot for employees including expanding stock options and removing a lot of hierarchy within the enterprise.  

      Unfortunately, I don’t have as much background and knowledge about how Jack ran GE, but thanks for the link.  I’d certainly be curious to learn more about what he did.

      • I agree that a system like the one described in the Harvard piece would prove disastrous. Re Jack Welch’s approach: He rather famously put in place a system at GE that called for the bottom 10 percent of employees to be terminated. As many enterprises have come to discover, forced ranking systems, rather than leading to improved results, can actually cause serious problems, including class-action lawsuits.

  • Alfredo

    I completely agree with your assessment. Without bringing in ethical considerations, this Darwinian model is simply not functional except in very small, conditioned settings

    • Good to hear from you Alfredo!  Agreed and I have to see anyone really take this approach and share any data/information from it.

  • Anonymous

    You say, “In fact, why don’t we take everyone, put them into a circular arena, give them swords, and see what happens. ” and I think that sums it up. I won’t be applying for a job at a Darwinian workplace. 

    • Hi Alisa,

      That’s exactly the first thing I thought of when I read the article on Harvard, it immediately made be think of a blood bath in true gladiator fashion.  There is already a lot of stress in the work environment, I can’t imagine what this would do!

  • Skhanna

    A good analysis!  A workplace following the “survival of the fittest” with the aim to trim down to only the top performers is TOXIC.
    In a well collaborated workplace the management will not use this theory to create cut throat competition. As a matter of fact, when team performance is placed above the individual efforts, self-management is placed above micromanagement, the company will evolve to have only good workers and willful performers on board.
    Why declare war when the joining hands leads to the same outcome?

    • Completely agree, I don’t know many companies taking this approach actually, in fact most of what I see is quite the opposite, geared towards collaboration.  Toxic is a good way to describe it, thanks for the comment!

  • Anonymous

    I have worked in several places like this where team work was discouraged and “leader boards” were in place to make the “strong” feel better and the “weak” to be shamed. Even though I hovered in the higher end of the mid-range, I hated it. Nothing you ever did was enough, good performance was “rewarded” with higher and higher expectations, and not a single person truly liked their job (even the top performers). As Skhanna said, it was a toxic environment and when the employees tried to bad together to share knowledge, work as a team, or build better relationships with customers we were flat out told “that’s not what we’re paying you for, we’re paying you to hit these numbers.”

    Ever since then the culture and environment I work in has become the 2nd most important thing to me when it comes to where I hang my hat for the work day.

    • Doesn’t sound like a very fun place to work.  I this quite a bit with various organizations but the good news is that many of them know they need to change and are trying to figure out how?  Work-life balance is crucial and when we spend so much time at work, thinking about work, and working; it’s an absolute must for us to have a good environment.  Thanks for sharing!