The Darwinian Workplace: Kill the Weak and Drain the Strong


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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…

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jacob Morgan
I'm a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and futurist who explores what the future of work is going to look like and how to create great experiences so that employees actually want to show up to work. I've written three best-selling books which are: The Employee Experience Advantage (2017), The Future of Work (2014), and The Collaborative Organization (2012).


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