The 7 Categories of Coworkers


Over the years, I’ve come to depend on using three dimensions to evaluate employees; while many more sophisticated models have been devised by professional organizational behaviorists, I’m a fan of simplicity and the number 3 :-). I believe that understanding these three dimensions allows you to practically evaluate any employee and, more importantly, articulate their strengths and weaknesses.

Whether you’re a manager evaluating your staff or an individual trying to understand your coworkers, you can use this model as a pragmatic categorization. It’s important to note that these are not “types” of employees but only “categories” thereof; that is, this model presumes that a coworker can move from one category to another over time.

Note: I apologize in advance if your name happens to show up below in one of our fictional characters; I assure you it was not intentional and completely circumstantial due to my attempt at alliteration  :-).

The 3 Dimensions

1. Skill

Skill captures the criterion we all think about first: how well-trained and able is the coworker at doing his or her job: Can they work autonomously? Are they sought after as experts in their domain?

2. Will

Will is about a coworker’s initiative to work hard and their desire to challenge themselves by taking on new challenges and projects. Coworkers with high will tend to be thought of as hard workers who put a lot of effort into their work.

3. Attitude

We tend to disregard this third dimension of attitude: Does the coworker have a great attitude at work? Are they known for bringing positive energy to the environment? Coworkers with a great attitude are approachable and friendly.

The Model

The model we’ll use to define the seven categories is a Venn diagram of our three dimensions of skill, will, and attitude. The chart below outlines the seven categories based on coworkers’ strengths and weaknesses with respect to the three dimensions:


The C Players

We start out with our “C” players: those who are strong on only one of the three dimensions and weak on the other two. Let me be frank and contend that, in my experience, it’s not worth the effort to try to turn these C players around as, while overcoming a weakness in one dimension is doable, doing so with two dimensions is typically more work than rehiring.

#1. Solo Sam

Solo Sam knows his stuff; he is super-skilled in his discipline, is considered a subject matter expert, and knows it. He isn’t very friendly and is typically a bit of a loner. He doesn’t have much drive to work resting on his skill and expertise as his saving grace. When things go very badly, his colleagues are forced to approach Solo Sam for help at which point he dives in to save the day.

Kidding on the square: most software engineering teams of any size have a Solo Sam :-).

Training tip: I wish I could tell you that your chances of success with Solo Sam are high, but I can’t; what I can tell you is that you shouldn’t be overly patient with him as his negative influence on the rest of the organization is costing you more than you realize.

#2. Worker William

Worker Williams puts in the hours; he wants to be successful but doesn’t know how to build his skill set. He’s a bit quirky and thus is perceived as having a “strange” attitude; because of this along with his lack of expertise, he’s rarely approached or engaged in any important projects.

Where to find them: Worker Williams typically show up in older organizations and gravitate toward laborious manual processes.

Training tip: if you have the patience, your best shot is to try to turn a Worker William into a Dependable Donna by improving his attitude and becoming more of a team player.

#3. Friendly Fanny

Friendly Fanny is so very nice; she greets everyone by name and brings a lot of cheer to the office environment. She’s not deeply-skilled in a discipline and has just enough initiative to get things done when asked to. However, her friendly demeanor mean she’s well-liked by most. She’s high on attitude and low on skill and will.

During staff cuts: rightly or wrongly, Friendly Fannies tend to lose out to Solo Sams and Worker Williams during economic downturns.

Training tip: Friendly Fanny, with enough inspirational leadership and explicit instructions, could potentially turn into a Dependable Donna over time; it’s all about giving her a reason to work hard.

The B Players

Our next group comprises the majority of an organization’s staff: coworkers who are strong on two dimensions but week on the third. These three coworkers, with the right leadership and investment, can be moved to A players; likewise, with the wrong leadership, it’s quite easy to turn them into C players who lose their will and initiative.

#4. Disliked Darren

Disliked Darren is high on skill and will, but low on attitude. He knows his stuff and has the will to work hard and get stuff done; unfortunately, he does so with a sour and cynical attitude. However, he is kept around because he is so integral to the company’s progress; after all, he’s both an expert and a good worker. Everyone knows Disliked Darren is a bit disgruntled, but no one wants to do anything about it because there are bigger fish to fry.

Unfortunate fact: many Disliked Darrens get promoted over time and manage teams with an iron fist.

Training tip: explain to Disliked Darren the importance of approachability and the power and impact he would have by simply prioritizing his attitude toward others.

#5. Dependable Donna

The boss continues to count on Dependable Donna: she has a great, positive attitude and is willing to put in the hours to get stuff done. She doesn’t score highly on the skill dimension but has the right demeanor to give the boss confidence that she can learn and grow her skill set over time. Dependable Donnas is willing to take on those painful projects few are willing to take on.

Confessions of a manager: I have a soft spot in my heart for Dependable Donnas; how can you not want to invest in someone who is willing to work hard and has a positive attitude?

Training tip: it’s important to spend a lot of time with Dependable Donna helping her develop her skill set: from soft skills to technical ones; she wants to improve and is open to learning, so it would be a shame to not give her that chance.

#6. Tired Tom

Tired Tom used to be a rock star A player; something has happened over the years, though. He’s still high on skill and has a great attitude, but has lost his will and initiative to work hard. Perhaps it’s a loss of confidence in the company’s ability to execute; or perhaps it’s that he’s no longer as critical to the company’s mission as he used to be.

Simple fact: Tired Toms tend to linger in the background of organizations slowly losing relevance; if not addressed, they turn into Disliked Darrens at which point they’re much harder to turn around.

Training tip: Tired Toms can be turned around and rejuvenated by introducing an inspiring manager; in my experience, Tired Toms are the easiest to turn into A players.

The A Player

These are rare coworkers; they have it all: the skill to get things done, the will to leverage it, and the attitude that makes them positive influences on any team. These unicorns of coworkers are the reason companies succeed; the most successful companies in the world have somehow managed to lure in some of these people.

#7. Rockstar Rhonda

Rock star Rhonda is simply awesome: she somehow manages to balance an incredible workload with a great attitude making a big impact on every project she touches. Everyone wants her help on their project.

Sad truth: Rockstar Rhondas are sometimes inexplicably overlooked for promotions that take them out of their current domain because they’re seen as such a good fit where they are.

Training tip: don’t take Rockstar Rhondas for granted; managers tend to underinvest in her because she’s already so self-sufficient, but that’s a sure way to have someone else lure her away.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s