Cheering Foul Balls—Sometimes Effort Shouldn’t Count

I spend a lot of time at youth baseball and softball games these days. I have dust in my hair and dirt in my shoes from mid-March to late July. Want to see the dark side of suburbia? Jam into a community ballpark with parents who have sat on hot aluminum bleachers all day, trying to define their own self-worth with the ups and downs of Junior’s on-base percentage. It’s incredibly compelling, sad and hilarious all at the same time.

One trend I have noticed lately? Johnny watches the first pitch go by for a strike. Then the second. On the third pitch, he makes a bit of contact and knocks the ball foul.

And the parents lose their minds. Cheering, happy, encouraging little Jimmy. Jimmy’s been in a slump, you see, so it’s time to cheer him on.

Um, why, may I ask?

Being the obnoxious talent pro who can’t even enjoy a 13-year-old’s baseball game without turning it into a lesson, that’s where I jump in. Why are we cheering on Johnny? He hit a foul ball. He didn’t “do” anything. He actually cost himself a strike.

The fans are excited because he showed some effort, it appears. For some people, that’s apparently a success, especially when someone has been struggling to produce.

Here’s the lesson, folks. If you get to the point in your management career where you are applauding mere effort for marginal performers, you are in a bad place.

  • Jim, you did some nice work on that Acme Industries proposal. Stan had to rewrite most of it, but I appreciate the hard work.
  • Sally, nice try on the Landry doughnut theft prosecution case. The guy walked away Scott free, but you filed some good motions.
  • Listen, Warden, you did a nice job with the fence on this prison. Never mind that two convicted murderers used power tools to cut their way out—the fence looks great.

In most businesses, results matter. A lot. Effort is good and it helps drive productivity, but it should never be celebrated in a vacuum, like Johnny’s foul ball.

If you find yourself applauding effort, one of these things is usually happening. You:

  • Can’t admit a performance issue exists
  • Don’t want to confront the performance issue
  • Know a performance issue exists but you are rooting for the employee to “turn it around” with effort
  • Don’t want to alienate the rest of the staff by addressing a hard worker’s performance issue

That last one is pretty common, I think. Everyone likes Susie, and she’s just trying so darn hard—I don’t want to ruin the team chemistry by intervening. The problem, of course, is that all of the other team members know Susie is struggling and they are waiting for you to manage, not cheer. They want you to do something. Effort is an element of performance, but it’s not the end result.

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. Matt W. says:

    Is a batter with two strikes out when they hit a foul ball? I will always root for a batter or an emplyoee who extends an at-bat giving themselves additional chances to succeed. Foul balls are so much more preferable to leaving the bat on the shoulder and waiting for the ump to call a ball or a strike. To extend the foul ball metaphor, a batter that strikes out while making the opposing pitcher throw 10 pitches, might still be striking-out, but they used thier skills to put their team in a better position than when they came up to bat even though thier batting average is a little worse for wear. I say cheer for foul-balls and talk about batting averages and Sabre metrics after the game.

  2. KD says:

    I have the answer. Johnny was lost when he watched two strikes go by. He’s hoping for a walk – and alas – destined for failure.

    First strike % for a pitcher 60% or higher? Go up hacking on the first pitch.

    On a related note – Johnny was not part of the Astros/Cards security breech. So he’s got that going for him…

  3. HRBizLady says:

    What baloney. Measuring employee value as a manager stands and calls the balls and strikes – one short-term assessment after another – ick. So let’s stop encouraging folks, yet make sure we also focus on the performance issues and confront them? Goodness. Why is this an either / or? Why can’t leaders encourage AND hold people accountable.

    Shooting straight with the batter (‘you are in a slump so things need to change”), genuinely encouraging effort, then addressing continued problems (bench him in the next game) would be the action of a skilled leader. A better recommendation would be to hold Johnny accountable for his batting average and the leader accountable to improve Johnny AND the team.

    This article points out that being too encouraging of an employee could be a crutch for a manager that is no direct-dealing with issues. Fair enough. But not encouraging Johnny as he completes his at-bat? This is too short-term of an analogy and takes it too far, and at the expense of the employee and team.

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