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Karin’s Leadership Articles

How to Lead in a Stack Ranked World

6 Secrets to Building Teams in a Stack-Ranked System

by | Apr 9, 2013 | By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning, Communication |

Stuck in a Stack-Ranked System? How to Encourage Collaboration Anyway

Bell curves and stack-ranked evaluation systems bring out the worst in your best. Rewarding individual performance drives individual behavior. Yet, most performance management systems do just that.

Bell curves, stack ranks, 9 box succession planning grids, all encourage selfish choices. Unless you’re running HR you can’t change the system. You can build great teams within it.

Lead past the curve to greatness.

6 Secrets to Building Great Teams in a Stack-Ranked World

Secrets from 20 years of watching, listening, leading, and being a member of great (and mediocre) teams in a stack-ranked system.

1. Inspire Vision that Motivates Sacrifice

Build excitement around an important vision. Make the mission bigger than “me” or “you.” Ensure everyone feels vital. Make the mission so attractive that everyone feels like they’ve won. When people are connected to something bigger, the frustration of the stack ranked system gets smaller.

2. Define extraordinaryyour competition is mediocrity

Define “leading” in terms of extraordinary behaviors.

  • Expose mediocrity tenaciously and compassionately. Teams rise when mediocrity is courageously rejected and excellence pursued.
  • Honor self-less actions.
  • Establish systems, rules, rewards, and consequences.
  • Rise above results. Build integrity, loyalty, and vulnerability.

3. Reward teamwork

Reward collaborative behaviors early and often. Create infrastructure for peer recognition. Celebrate “how” over “what.” Begin meetings with informal peer recognition.

Encourage your team to share best practices and reward the sharing.

4. Create opportunities to cross-train

People will remember the years they grew professionally. The memory of a 5% higher bonus or where they sat in the stack rank will fade. Vital skills last forever. Encourage cross-training. You can’t resent a peer who made you remarkably better.

5. Involve the team in the evaluation

Have the employees rate themselves and one another on behaviors. Conduct the assessment several times a year, and use it as appraisal input. It’s tricky but worthwhile and makes the stack ranking feel more collaborative.

6. Eliminate coasters

Require teamwork as a foundational job requirement. Inspire and teach teamwork. When a member refuses, help him find a more fitting job.

2021 Update

Winning Well by Karin Hurt and David DyeIf you’ve stumbled on this article about building collaboration in stack-ranked teams, you’ve found some of my very early writing. I was still working in my day job as a Verizon executive and just cutting my teeth on writing.  Now I run a leadership development company and nope, no stack ranking on our team 😉

Since this stack-ranked team venting and raw solutions, I’ve written over a thousand articles, four books, and worked to train over 10,000 leaders in 14 countries.  You can learn more about that journey here. I say all that to encourage you to check out some of our newer writing as well 😉

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today?


  1. Eric Dingler (@EricDingler)

    Keeping systems simple.

    All organization naturally drift towards complexity. Don’t institute a new policy because of one person’s mistake or misstep.

    Whenever possible, instruct and education over train. Training is teaching someone to do something without variation. Instruction gives them the skills to do a task, and the understanding to adapt to unseen variables. Education gives them the skills and the ability to adjust plus the knowledge to leverage opportunities and threats while connecting to the big picture.

  2. letsgrowleaders

    Eric, what an important add. Instruct over train. Beautiful. I wonder if we could stop using the word “training…” what new approaches could that trigger?

  3. Patti

    Karin, instructing rather than training is a wonderful concept, however, if you are going to instruct rather than train, you also need to give people the freedom to make decisions on their own and trust those decisions. Many managers are not comfortable with letting go of the reins a bit so their folks can make their own decisions.

  4. letsgrowleaders

    Patti, you raise a very important point. Empowerment goes hand in had with this approach.

  5. Eric Dingler (@EricDingler)

    Patti and Karen; indeed.

    Karen, it’s interesting you questioned renaming training. I was working on the packet we are about to send to our new hires for this summer. We’ve decided to switch the word training to orientation…not earth shattering or creative…but I also spent time creating a pizza topping scavenger hunt. That got the creativity efforts today. The life of a camp director.


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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