"Stalwart Workers": neglected backbone of the firm

Writing in a Harvard Business Review blog, professor Thomas J. DeLong talks about "Stalwart Workers," a neglected part of the workforce who don't live to work, don't crave promotion, but constitute the backbone of the organization:
Myth #1: Stars are smarter than Stalwarts. Stalwarts are not necessarily less intelligent than Stars. Achievement is a complicated blend of intelligence, motivation, and personality. Research confirms that insight; dozens of psychological studies have demonstrated that Stars and Stalwarts differ at least as much in temperament as intelligence.

Myth #2: Everybody is the same. Not every employee wants to give his all (or even his best) to the organization, leaving little time and energy for people and passions outside the workplace. Stalwarts place a high premium on work-life balance, and they highly value the time they spend with family and friends. In fact, many of the most productive Stalwarts are recovered Stars who, for a variety of personal reasons, have made a conscious decision to drop off the fast track.

Myth #3: Everybody wants the same thing out of work. Leaders often assume that all of their followers share their drive for power, status, and money. That's just not so. Many Stalwarts want to influence others in their jobs. Others value autonomy, creative opportunities, or the chance to develop unique expertise.

Stop Ignoring the Stalwart Worker (via Beth Pratt)

(Image: Cartoon Cards Game, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from andertoons-cartoons's photostream)


    1. Indeed irksome.

      My granddad always told me to find a passion and either find a way to make a living from it or to make enough money to pursue it on my own time.

      Good stuff… thanks for the link.

  1. Stalwarts place a high premium on work-life balance, and they highly
    value the time they spend with family and friends. In fact, many of the
    most productive Stalwarts are recovered Stars who, for a variety of
    personal reasons, have made a conscious decision to drop off the fast

    1. Quite so. One of the main problems being that everyone wants to hire a star, yet nobody wants to hire someone who is going to be directly gunning for your job (which as someone who wants power they will naturally make some attempt to do).

      I’ve had some very odd looks in interviews trying to explain to someone that, in essence their job is not something that interests me in the slightest… it’s the position offered that interests me… Hence i applied for it

  2. Hey, I represent that demographic. I work, but I love my life too much and work != life. Also, I get nauseated by some of the ultimately destructive antics people around me do to “get ahead” and sell themselves to the company as “value-creators” when really they are “brown-nosers” or “back-stabbers” and little more. Mmmm… 

  3. Very, very true: both about the people who are the backbone of a company, and the inability of some high-charged managers to comprehend that “everybody ain’t like me”. I saw a lot less of this attitude in managers who either started at low levels and worked their way up (often working before college), or were military vets (usually former officers, but not always). They understood that not everybody wants to be a rock star.

    My first jobs in engineering I saw exactly what you describe: the most reliable people were generally those who showed up at 8:00am or a bit earlier, worked (and worked hard) until 5:00pm on the dot, and were out the door to get on with the rest of their lives: family, home projects, softball leagues, bowling leagues, part-time jobs, whatever. They took pride in their work, but they didn’t define themselves solely by what they did to pay the bills. All us young kids had convinced ourselves that we were in Big Careers. And yet, over time, I notice that the people who do best in Big Careers tend to work 8-10 hours a day (and they work, no long lunches or bullshitting time), but then when they leave work, they leave it behind and get on with the rest of their lives. They compartmentalize. One I observed was the head of a hundred million dollar construction project, and was very good at it. But when he left work, he Left Work, until tomorrow morning. Sort of the same thing as the “nine-to-fiver”, just more intense.
    I think the pattern is the healthy thing, and you have to figure out how intensely you can pursue it.

    1. Very well put, and efficiently compartmentalizing does sound great for people whose personalities fit that mode. But then, it’s just not viable for some jobs, like teaching, which pretty much requires bringing work home.

  4. Oh, one other thing: one of the smartest guys I ever knew was a high-school graduate and military vet who ran a tech lab in a large company. He could figure anything out, make anything happen, and had a photographic memory. I once saw him effortlessly recall minute details of a project he had worked on in 1962 and hadn’t seen since (it was 1986). It was eerie, not just the raw brilliance but the fact that probably the most gifted guy in the company was a chief technician. And he was quite happy with his life.

  5. There is a management system that recognizes this all quite well and championed by Quint Studer. There are three levels of employees, ones, twos and threes. Threes are the negative do nothings that for some reason have survived. You get rid of them and you nurture the ones and twos. There will always be more twos than ones and business can’t survive without the twos. (The trick with the ones is to keep ‘re-recruiting’ them so they don’t leave.)

  6. And a well-oiled team of stalwarts will almost always outperform a star. There’s certainly value from people who (like HTC) are “quietly brilliant”, but most other “talent” is often more trouble than they’re worth.

    1. Let me second this notion of teamwork.

      I don’t care a fig about the end goal of my company (finance… making rich people richer). The only thing that could possibly motivate me at my job is my own sense of pride and my dedication to my co-workers.

      Pride takes a beating when you work day in and day out for a paycheck and an end goal you don’t believe in. But believing in the people around and being excited about succeeding together never gets old.

      When you have an organization filled with ladder climbing, self-glorifying, 12 hour a day hotshots you doing so at the expense of people being motivated by one another. A company filled with hotshots is a sick company. I would not by a dollar of stock in my company. Not because of the current balance sheet, business model, or economic environment. But because it’s a broken machine and the parts don’t work well together.

      1. It sounds like you really struggle to come up with good thoughts about your job. Which speaks well of you, I think, given your job.

  7. I doubt I’d find agreement at Harvard Business School, but I’d argue that the nemesis of the stalwart is the fresh MBA who is all about justifying his position by ratcheting up the pressure and workload on the stalwarts.  

    “Lumbergh’s gonna have me come in on Saturday, I just know it.”

  8. Let’s cut to the chase. There are two kinds of people: Sheep and sharks. Anyone who’s a sheep is fired. Who’s a sheep?

    Sharks are winners and they don’t look back ’cause they don’t have necks. Necks are for sheep. I am proud to be the shepherd of this herd of sharks.

  9. Part of the American dream is to keep your mouth shut (no one likes whiners) and work as hard as you possibly can, and eventually you’ll become rich (somehow). 

    It’s very easy to neglect a worker who works hard for you, day after day, and never complains.

  10. I agree with Evil Paul in one way — as soon as management identifies something happening in the workplace, they usually find a way to screw it up. But on the other hand, too many systems in the corporate world are there to reward the ladder-climbers. Performance reviews are used to tell workers how far away they are from advancing; instead of being a chance to reward and praise work accomplished in the last year. 

  11. If being a star means working 12+ hours a day to get ahead, you’re going to find yourself running out of fuel, leading to a crash and burn sooner than you think.  A real star acts like a stalwart – pace yourself, keep your energy up and work to the best of your ability and you’ll shine through without sitting at your desk longer than you have to.

    OTOH anyone regularly working 10+ hours a day has a problem, either their own work ethic is at fault or the company has wider problems (understaffed, poor management etc).  A company that appreciates its ‘stars’ in this way should be avoided by the stalwart at all costs – lest you become an enslaved zombie yourself.

  12. Frequently, when a sociological study is published, there’s always That Guy who has to add the comment that it’s just common sense. Most of the time, the comment isn’t justified, because common sense isn’t proof, and more often than not the commonsense answer is wrong, or at least not as straightforward as common sense would have it.

    This time, however, I really don’t know if I can resist being That Guy.

    The people who keep their mouths shut and just do the work are important for business? Really? Who’d have thought that someone who was actually working would be important to work getting done?

    1. What gave you the idea that common sense productivity and creativity has any chance in competition with relentless self-promotion, inside a large corporation?

  13. I must be a stalwart, since at performance reviews, I keep asking my supervisor NOT to promote me into management. 

    1. I must be a stalwart, since at performance reviews, I keep asking my supervisor NOT to promote me into management.
      No desire to herd the cats and deal with the crazyness of customer expectations/relations that my management has to deal with. I really really like being touchy feely with the computing hardware/software and do not need to be biting my toungue 20 times a day during requirements meetings.

  14. “Not every employee wants to give his all (or even his best) to the organization, leaving little time and energy for people and passions outside the workplace.”

    frightening that this would be news to many managers/business owners. what a messed up culture.

    1. Why would you assume that this “would be news”? The vast majority of managers I know totally understand this and act accordingly. Not news at all.

      1. By “act accordingly” you mean underpay them and take credit for their accomplishments while convinced that shaving tenth-percents off HR costs on spreadsheets is the vastly more important contribution as a manager?  If not, are you hiring?

  15. Since I stumbled into IT work and by the time I was doing proper server support rather than desktop support I was in my late 20’s and it was the middle of the dotcom boom. I got asked many times why I didn’t jump ship from the big staid megacorp (a large aircraft manufatcurer in the pacific northwest) for the $$$ and new. I just didn’t feel the need and it really hit home when having a thanksgiving dinner with one of my spouses dotcom coworker/friends and she was commenting on how that it was the first full weekend she had off in awhile. I realized then and there the extra money was not worth giving up barring some IT emergency I got to go home every day at 4pm, I had my weekends free, etc.

  16. Oh please keep ignoring.  I like to do my job and go home.  I hate motivation techniques, incentives, and other happy company crap.  Unless you are going to give me a raise just shut up and let me do my job.  Job description changed?  Toss me a manual.  I can read instructions.

    I once had a boss that kept me and everyone else in constant meetings about how to improve performance. It made me want to scream.  Want to improve performance?  Stop gathering us together so you can have an audience for your ramblings and let us do our f-ing jobs.  If you are that desperate to “manage” someone then go hire a few less competent people and harass them for a while– but, leave me alone… I got shit to do today.

    And of course, that same boss would never be available when he was actually needed to make an executive decision, pushing all the responsibility off onto us.  

    I’m still bitter about it.  Now when I’m interviewed I make a point to ask the interviewer what type of management style I should expect.  If I hear “hands on”, “personally vested”, or “team leader” anywhere in the answer I know it’s going to blow working there.  Not that I won’t take the job, but I’ll have to work twice as hard to do my job without interruption.

    1. I had a boss once who said that his job was to be the buffer shielding us from having to deal with upper management. We could do our jobs while he dealt with upper management and people from the outside. He was a pretty good boss.

      1. I always told my middle-management boss(es) [I too, avoided being promoted to management]  that keeping upper-management BS out of our way was their job.  The ones that did it made our life nicer.

  17. I am indeed a stalwart at my day job, and do my job darn well, if I don’t mind my saying, but I have to fend-off frequent propositions for advancement, aka “Management” (yuk!). However, I sure am jealous of Barney’s ability to make his car run with just his feet.

  18. I suspect that Steve “I’m going to call someone at home on Sunday about the color of the logo” Jobs would think the stalwarts are slackers, parasites, or worse.

  19. What I’m wondering is how scanning a picture of Barney Rubble from a card game gave andertoons the right to release it under Creative Commons. Because I think we’ve found an awesome workaround to all of copyright law right there.

  20. I was writing some really complicated analogy about tall ships and small businesses: the need for proficient, satisfied sailors to work together hauling and belaying while the officers direct the men and others concentrate on trigonometry so the ship doens’t run aground or wander about the South Pacific ’til the crew is eating salted, wormy penguins, etc. And don’t forget the cook! Anyone with 25 different salt pork recipes is a keeper.  

    But basically, as a small business owner, you’ve got to reward your stalwarts and keep them happy because they’re usually covering the overhead while you find new business or expand into the markets that provide the work that keeps the “stars” happy and engaged. Rewarding valued employees is essential.

    And easy… as long as you’re not a recently-minted Ivy League MBA who’s a 25-year-old middle-manager. In your first job… Ever. Or a McKinsey consultant who’s just breaking into “the real world” with lots of theoretical experience, a biggish staff of truly experienced pros and an immense, bossy attitude. Ugh.

    The harder part is maintaining a balance of stalwart work and “star” work as the company grows or expands. I’ve had fantastic stalwart employees who hated having to learn new technologies or skill sets because certain established markets were closing for our business. That was difficult. 

    But reflecting on the most profitable and happiest business that my partner and I ran, its success was due to an almost ideal mix of awesome stalwarts and stars, so I guess the most important and universally valuable rule is to appreciate and reward every employee for what they offer the company.

    1. The classic faulty model is the “Captains of Industry” approach.  The ship is surrounded by a dense fog.  The crew of hunchbacks casts anxious glances at the Captain, standing in splendid isolation on the poop-deck”, wondering how he will get them out of this.  “Hard a’port” comes the cry from the Captain.

      “Lulaaaargh” cries the one-eyed hunchback at the wheel as he instantly spins it all the way to the end of its play.  The ship hits a reef and sinks.

  21. You know why unions exist in the world of entertainment that is flush with cash? The “stars” and other ego cases in the business have no idea that production people are needed or even required.

  22. Wow, they got me pegged.  If I get on the right project though I can be a star (or try).  I just don’t have the energy or desire to function at that level for someone else constantly.

    Not to knock them personally but my impression of the management just above me is that they are forced to spend 99% of their time attending meetings and tracking things, not solving things or being creative.  Doesn’t seem like enjoyable work.

  23. In WWII they were wondering how hard they could steadily work people in factories and offices cause the Nazis were coming to kill them all if they lost.  The answer was about 80 hours a week.  After that you’re into the area of rapidly diminishing returns.  Not only are you working slower but your brain is fried and you’ll be spending hours tomorrow fixing what you screwed up today.

    Anything past that is purely for the purposes of macho bullshit posturing.  It only ever even looks like it’s necessary because of poor or non-existent planning by upper management.

  24. When they asked me if I wanted to be in management I said “And deal with assholes like me all day? Forget it!”

  25. I’m very much fuelled by creative opportunities, job variety, and unique experience and learning. There’s nothing like it. I get to do something different every day or week and I *love* that.

  26. I was once a star. I shone so bright I made everyone else squint. Eventually I got a bit burnt out and came to realize that being paid less than the army of incompetents surrounding me wasn’t worth the hassle. Also, people don’t like the young new guy who works harder, dresses nicer, and demands progress. I pretty much nuked my chances of moving up, management is fundamentally conservative.
    So I backed way off, I still get more done than most, and I’m always ready to step it up when circumstances demand, but I don’t destroy myself for work anymore. I love my job, I love where I work, but I make enough money to survive and I do great things for my employer. I don’t care if no one notices, I like being the guy in the background that no one is quite sure what he does except whenever the shit hits the fan there I am gently point at who threw it and where the fucking switch is. I’ve accepted that my employer does not value me regardless of what I contribute, I’d love to shine again but it is just not worth it

  27. My father is one of those who worked for the same company for 40 years before he retired. In all those years, he lost count of the number of times management wanted to promote him out of craft and into a managerial position, and he refused every time.

    What management at this major Bell company would do is, they would promote any particularly effective union stewards (such as my dad) and get them into management, where they can’t be protected by the union. Then they’d simply fire the newly-promoted manager and have HR blacklist them. It was a very common practice throughout my dad’s career, and I hear it’s the same now that AT&T has mostly reconstituted itself.

    But the practice works, because many people are short-sighted, selfish and greedy. They enjoy the protection the union gave them, but they didn’t want to pay any dues. They don’t want to give up anything at all. That kind of attitude is why so many self-proclaimed “sharks” end up as chum. I’d much rather learn my job until I’m superior at it, thus commanding the highest wages while remaining protected by my union (I don’t work in telecom). I don’t want to be a supervisor, foreman, engineer or anything else. Let those fools fight it out, and I’ll just keep on keeping on.

  28. Yep… this really hit home for me.

    In my last management gig (two departments, 12+ employees at a community media center), I decided that what was most needed in the org was someone with to really concentrate on daily operations: making sure technical systems functioned well, instituting efficiencies and processes that made sense, and, above all, ensuring that we were serving our clients and not inflicting red tape and needless problems on them. 

    First big mistake. 

    While I was toiling away keeping the gears oiled, my fellow senior and middle managers were into process, process, process (aaaaagggghhhh), the sexiness of dreaming the big dreams with endless focus groups, committees, consultants, all flogging the vision thing and pushing their various agendas, all without really asking or caring about what our user base thought. I tried to stay above (or at least away from) their sideshow and just concentrated on keeping the place running. This resulted in me becoming somewhat invisible. You know, a stalwart.

    Second big mistake.

    My frustration with it all started to leak out.  I began to openly question why no one could make a decision and why we were paying consultants to study what some of the front line people could have told us over a few beers.  I found myself more and more isolated, less relevant to the process junkies, no longer one the chosen few.  Despite 15+ years of hard work, glowing personnel reviews and demonstrable advances for the org, they got passive/aggressive, did a long, painful reorganization and killed my position, rather than address me directly. Weasels.

    In short, being a stalwart killed the gig I’d worked years to establish.  Lesson?  I wish someone had drilled it into my head when I was a pup that pursuing politics and paying attention to my “star status” is much, much more important for one’s personal advancement than being a dedicated worker bee.

  29. Another here in the “I don’t want a promotion” club.  Told one manager “Money doesnt motivate me, I have no desire to lord power over people. I want to put in an honest day’s work then go home.”  

    Which that just reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a while back. I had to explain that much like Alfred’s story about ‘some people just want to watch the world burn’, “Some of us don’t care about a career. A job & wage is merely a socially inflicted evil. It is not how we measure ourselves or our life…”  The rest of the conversation was a rambling discussion about people working against each other, rather than for each other.

  30. I’ve pretty much learned to play politics in the sense of putting on an enraged mask whenever management does. My past calm attitude of “It’s just a problem, we’ll fix it,”  I now realize comes off as arrogant to those who approach a problem like an emotional storm. When upper managment burst into the room now, screaming that heads have gotta roll, I simply slam my fist down in fake agreement. Then I wink at whoever was human enough to make the mistake, letting them know a lot of posturing is going to happen, but we’ll fix it. Just make sure those you help don’t have corporate climbing in their eyes and a knife behind their back.

  31. I thought Barney Rubble’s true vocation was ‘secret work for the government’ as revealed in the film Our Man Flintstone. 

  32. And then the faithful 50 year old stalwart worker was laid off because it was a great cost saving to replace all the old well paid stalwart workers with new younger poorly paid workers. The End.

Comments are closed.