How ‘catfish’ help ‘sardines’ perform better

Highly active and motivated employees act as battery chargers for the sluggish employees in the company, who are low on energy and enthusiasm.

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When the managers put a strong candidate, who possesses remarkable skills, in a low-performance group, then the entire group feels motivated to perform better. This is called the catfish effect— a term used commonly in human resource management.

Origin of the concept

The origin of this concept can be traced to a fable, perhaps apocryphal. It is said that long ago, sailors carried sardines in a water tank to the port of Norway. Some of these fish would die in the tank before reaching the shore. One sailor devised a unique strategy— he kept a catfish in the same tank. The sardines stayed active during the entire journey for fear of being eaten by the catfish. Their constant activity kept them alive, till the sailor reached the port. In this case, the sailor got a better price for his catch.

In the context of human resource management, the sardines and catfish can be equated to active and inactive employees with the following characteristics: –

Sardines: They are passive performers who need a nudge to get into action. They tend to switch off during meetings, lack involvement and do not contribute to processes.

Catfish: They are motivated to perform and have the potential and skill to execute complex actions. Highly competitive, they are quick thinkers and problem solvers. Very active and strategic thinkers by nature, they are the ones in the organisation who are willing high on energy and are willing to learn more, take initiatives, and give results all the time.

According to Ganesh Chandan, CHRO, Tata Projects, in their organisation they try and analyse the projects which are not going anywhere, and where the morale and the motivation level of the team can cause underperformance. They then introduce highly talented and motivated people into those projects from outside or within the organisation.

Ganesh Chandan

“There is a catch in this process. The HR team has to hand-hold the highly skilled and motivated person because it may be difficult for that person to take the whole team home all by himself” 

However, he warns that HR has to be very careful with this kind of a strategy. The highly motivated person will need to be given support so that she/he does not feel left alone, which can be a de-motivating factor for the person.

“There is a catch in this process. The HR team has to hand-hold the highly skilled and motivated person because it may be difficult for that person to take the whole team home all by himself. The HR needs to provide continuous support in this case and remove the de-motivating barriers,” says Chandan.

At Apollo Munich Health Insurance, this practice is commonly used for the new hires. The newly-hired employees are placed with the experienced ones causing a sort of cross pollination of skills and experience. As per Paramjit Singh Nayyar, CHRO and member, EXCO, this strategy may or may not work with the experienced people who are not performing because of low morale.

Paramjit Singh

It totally depends on the attitude of the members— whether they are willing to learn and make efforts to produce results for the company” 

“It totally depends on the attitude of the members— whether they are willing to learn and make efforts to produce results for the company,” opines Nayyar.

One of the senior HR professionals in the industry mentions that such a practice may give you results, but may also end up putting more work on the highly skilled people because the weaker members of the team may still not perform.

Vijay Singh

It may be difficult for just one person to bring about a difference in the whole team. We can have two or three highly motivated people, so that they can at least support each other in the whole process” 

“It may be difficult for just one person to bring about a difference in the whole team. We can have two or three highly motivated people, so that they can at least support each other in the whole process,” suggests Vijay Singh, VP-HR, JK Cement.

Singh adds, “In our organisation, we believe that there can be different motivating factors for different people so it is very important for the managers to understand the pulse of the team members and produce results.”

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