The hazards of go-to people

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Every IT manager wants to have a star performer who can reliably be turned to in a crisis. Just don’t see everything as a crisis that only the star performer can resolve.


Sportscasters love the idea of go-to people — a select few on a team whom the coach will always turn to when something important needs to be done right the first time. With one second left to go in a tight basketball game, sportscasters are prone to authoritatively predicting who will take the final shot. If they are right, they sound like they know what they are talking about. If not, they can second-guess the coach’s decisions and fill hours of airtime with the drama of a ginned-up controversy.

IT managers have a similar faith in their stars. The vast majority of those I’ve worked with over the years speak with reverence and appreciation when they discuss their most trusted staffers. They tell me stories of disasters averted, crises resolved and nearly impossible problems rectified. Without their go-to people, they fear that they wouldn’t be able to deliver what’s expected of their teams.

What’s not to love about the idea? Managers who have called on their star performers for a tough job look good to their stakeholders when those stars once again deliver. And they'll look good even if they are generous enough to give all due credit to their go-to people.

And all of that is fine — unless turning to your go-to people becomes standard operating procedure rather than a rarely used approach. As a consultant, I’ve repeatedly had to help clients recognize and overcome the negative fallout of the go-to person habit.

Although most go-to people enjoy being recognized for competence, getting opportunities to learn new things and being granted the honor of being trusted, they do see problems with the role. They may:

  • Resent that they shoulder so much of the burden for the entire group.
  • Feel underpaid.
  • Burn out from the stress of being on the never-ending-crisis treadmill.
  • Feel trapped and unable to progress in their careers since they are so important in the role that they are in.
  • Become arrogant and condescending to their peers, drunk with the glory of being important.

In the end, many leave to:

  • Move into management.
  • Improve their work/life balance.
  • Pursue higher compensation.

And those who stay often end up spreading discontent among their peers. When go-to people get big heads, managers tolerate their condescending and overbearing behavior toward their peers, which demoralizes all but the select few.

For the staffers who are not the go-to people, things often don’t work out too well either. They can end up in a self-reinforcing cycle of unhappiness and poor performance. When they realize that they are not one of the go-to people they might:

  • Feel underappreciated and untrusted.
  • Lose the desire to work hard since they don’t feel that their work will be recognized or rewarded.
  • Miss out on the opportunities to work on exciting or important things, since they are not considered dedicated and capable.
  • Feel underappreciated and untrusted.

In the end, many leave for better opportunities, or worse yet, stay and spread their discontent to others.

If you want to grow a sustainable and growing team, rely on your go-to people only when you must. There will be occasions when you need to go to your strongest person. Just make sure that everyone else feels like a part of the team and not merely like supporting players for the stars.

is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at

This story, "The hazards of go-to people" was originally published by Computerworld.

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