Aké Satia is the Chief Vision Officer at Aké Satia, a Human Capital firm in the DC area focused on strengthening organizations by bolstering the intersection of people strategy and business strategy.



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Heroes and Zeroes

When you hear the word: hero, who comes to mind? Indiana Jones? Captain Marvel? Joan of Arc? And, when you hear the word: zero, do you think of a specific person, or do you think of a situation? Perhaps a time when you failed to execute a task? Or cringey memories of a project gone wrong? As living beings, we tend to group things into categories. And often, this tendency benefits us greatly!


Consider an invention that is commonplace today – Oven gloves. Oven gloves serve a purpose – they prevent burns! And they are the result of someone in the late 1800s seeking to lessen the frequency of bakers charring their hands as they baked decadent pastries in ovens. Being someone who enjoys a warm dark chocolate chip cookie, this invention is near and dear to my heart. So I view the inventors of oven gloves as heroes!


Indeed, the ability to spot trends, synthesize and categorize is a remarkable human ability that helps us solve problems and improve. But left unchecked, this tendency can be limiting. And this tends to be the case when our categorizations lead us to disregard the unique abilities, we each possess.


One such categorization is the system of heroes and zeroes that is sometimes used in organizations to assess employees’ performance. In such a system, if an employee does what the leaders want, they are deemed to be a hero. And, if an employee does not do what the leader wants, they are relegated to the category of zeroes.” Then, there is the middle ground which most people do not appreciate because they view it as the land reserved for the “average person.”

And, since an employee’s performance assessment often determines their financial rewards, being a hero or zero matters. In most cases, depending on the category an employee is placed in, they can expect to receive 100% rewards, no rewards, or something in-between. Of note, financial rewards tend to be based on a pre-set budget. Therefore differentiating performance and corresponding rewards is necessary. But how we determine and communicate financial rewards is where the opportunity lies.

Most of us would be appalled by the thought of anyone using a term like “zero” to describe a person. Yet speaking about someone’s performance on a job as if their performance is inextricably linked to their worth can hurt their sense of self-worth.

I recall working with a client who was very respected in his organization. And during his 12 years at the company, he was promoted six times! He was considered the star! Unfortunately, after almost two decades of marriage, he was going through a difficult divorce and moved out of his large craftsman home on a hill into a 1300 sq ft apartment. To exacerbate matters, he was battling for custody of his three children. Amidst lawyer appointments and his children’s extracurricular activities, he could barely focus on work. And as his battles intensified, he struggled to maintain his “hero” image at work. And he was frequently late for many meetings and had difficulty concentrating and leading his team.

One day, during a conversation, I asked him how he was doing. And he took in a shallow breath and responded, “I’m fine. Tired.” And I asked: “How are your boys?” He responded: “They’re good. Busy with school.” After noticing that his responses were five words or less, I changed tactics and said, “The weather is getting nice! Do you have any fun spring plans?” And he said, “I don’t have a lot of time for fun things. I have a lot of work, and my divorce takes all of my time.” After discussing more surface matters like the weather and hobbies, we moved past “5-word responses” and I asked him how I could help. And he said, “Help me navigate work.” As we continued to discuss, it became apparent that he was trying to reconcile his image as a “hero” with reality – where he was struggling to get through the average day.

After our discussion, as I reflected on what he shared, a thought surfaced… In an attempt to motivate employees, we can inadvertently create a system of heroes and zeroes. And a “hero” is rewarded with glowing awards and rewards for doing “what the leader wants.” But at a moment’s notice, the “hero status” can be withdrawn. And the withdrawal of the “hero status” is sometimes determined by what pleased or displeased others, with little regard to who the person is.

Given the impact this can have on an organization’s health, this led me to ponder a series of questions that you might benefit from considering – What is the most effective way to communicate with an employee about the value they provide to an organization? Are performance assessments and ratings based solely on an individual’s performance? Or do we assess an individual’s performance based on our perception of them? And does our assessment of an individual’s performance reaffirm what we believe? Or do we actively seek new perspectives?

In the case above, the individual had consistently been in a state of mind where he felt balanced – where his mind, body, and heart were working in unison to propel him forward. Unfortunately, now his heart was broken, and his mind was suffering. And he wrestled to reconcile his “hero” status at work with his reality. Many people experience similar situations.

And the impact a leader can make in helping employees navigate challenges cannot be overestimated.

It’s worth remembering that challenging situations often present an opportunity for leaders to rise – to view their employees as living beings with personal and professional needs who are neither defined by a stellar project nor a project gone wrong. And when a leader leads in this manner, employees are empowered. Because they know that their organization does not view their weak moments as a hallmark of who they are. And likewise, when employees perform well on the job, they can celebrate the moment without fear that they are setting an unattainable standard.

May we not categorize individuals into buckets but rather engage them in a manner that empowers them and enables them to blossom.

For you and to you,




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