Maryland Smith Research / August 1, 2017

Saving Your Superstars from the Team

Saving Your Superstars from the Team

How Group Dynamics Work Against High Performers

Modern organizations celebrate teamwork. They establish shared goals and values, invest in physical spaces that bring people together, and adopt diversity programs that give voice to everyone in the room. Then they go looking for hotshot individuals to fill key roles.

Optimistic hiring managers envision the best of both worlds: a collaborative community seeded with high performers who spread their positive influence through frequent social interaction. Unfortunately, the reality is often the reverse.

Team dynamics work against high performers, who get marked by their peers for sabotage, exclusion and ridicule. As the proverb warns: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” High performers in the corporate world cope with the stress by fleeing to different organizations or launching their own companies. Others withhold effort.

Some observers blame the social consequences for high performance on peer envy. But our research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, points to more pragmatic and perhaps more sinister forces. Regardless of any emotion, peers respond to high performers as part of a cold, calculated play for resources. This Machiavellian view explains why peers may alternately undermine and support the same high performers. Punishing high performers makes sense because they represent a threat to scarce resources, while cooperating with high performers makes sense because they can earn rewards on behalf of an entire department or group.

We observed the coexistence of love and hate in our two-part study, which included a field experiment with Taiwanese salon workers and a controlled experiment with U.S. undergraduate business students. Both experiments showed the power of rational calculations, which influenced behavior more than envy or other raw emotions.

Managerial solutions start with understanding these dynamics. The first step toward happy high performers is to recognize the mixed signals sent when organizations hire people who stand out and then tell them to fit in. Managers should watch for signs of frustration and provide emotional support when necessary.

Beyond that, managers who understand concerns about resource conservation can work from two directions to soften the social consequences of high performance. First, since peers perceive high performers as a threat to resources, managers can help alleviate concerns about some people receiving more than their fair share. One solution might involve a more balanced performance recognition system that looks beyond just productivity.

Second, managers can work to maximize the perceptions of benefit that come from collaboration with high performers. Expertise and experience can flow from one individual to others, creating better reputation and goal accomplishment for all.

Organizations that value high-performance teams and individuals don’t have to choose just one. If they stay vigilant and take appropriate action, they can have both.

Hui Liao, PhD, is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business; Elizabeth Campbell, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management; Aichia Chuang, PhD, is a distinguished professor at the National Taiwan University’s College of Management; Jing Zhou, is the Houston Endowed Professor at the Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business; and Yuntao Dong, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business.

Read More: Hot Shots and Cool Reception? An Expanded View of Social Consequences for High Performers is featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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