You want a team loaded with star players, right? What leader wouldn’t want a team filled with high-performing folks? Isn’t a team stacked with rocks stars is a good thing? It depends. Research into team performance reveals a surprising element: you can have too much of a good thing.
Consider the study reported in Gartner’s Talent Daily blog, which shows that high performance among waitstaff is “contagious,” meaning that moderately competent servers up their game when working alongside more talented waitstaff. But there was a point at which having too many star servers on one shift tended to demoralize other staff members and actually cause them to under-perform. Article author Oana Lupu offers this take-away: “It seems that the [teachable idea for leaders] is about finding the right balance: not too many high performers, and not too many average or low performers on the same team.”
The world of professional sports is loaded with examples of teams who can’t bring home the championship, despite a roster loaded with star talent. This Scientific American article explores studies that have examined the reasons for low team performance. It all comes down to how much you need your team to function as a truly cohesive unit. There’s a “tradeoff between top talent and teamwork,” writes article author Cindi May. “These [study] findings suggest that high levels of top talent will be harmful in arenas that require coordinated, strategic efforts, as the quest for the spotlight may trump the teamwork needed to get the job done,” observes May.
You may be thinking, that’s all well and good for sports teams and retail service providers, but what if I lead a team of knowledge workers? Does this research translate?
Absolutely, says Tamra Chandler, CEO of Peoplefirm, a Seattle-based consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations achieve strategic performance by tapping into employee motivation. Chandler has found that there’s definitely a downside to having too many driving, high-achievers on one team in your office. “None of us want a team of all rock stars. Because if you have too many people who are ‘killing it’ alll of the time, they will probably kill each other in the end,” says Chandler.
Instead, advises Chandler, you need a balance of skill sets. In her work with companies, Chandler has found that, “the healthiest organizations have a range of people with a diversity in capability, strengths and interests.” Organizations tend to prize (and compensate) the more strategic-oriented players in an organization, says Chandler. But don’t undervalue the folks with talent for the more mundane, daily tasks. Teams need to be comprised of a variety of people— some of whom want the high-visibility, high-stakes tasks, and others who are more comfortable in the background, supporting others. “We tend to assume that everyone wants to do the ‘sexy’ work or the ‘cool’ projects, but that’s not always true,” Chandler asserts.
To find the right balance within a team, leaders should ask a very important question of their team members: what do you love to do? This helps align employee interests to the team’s goals. It’s also important to remember that this isn’t an endorsement for leaders to tolerate mediocre performance, or overlook a lack of “fit” within the team. A leader’s role is to help every team member perform up to his or her full potential, whatever that is.
As with many things in life, “too much of a good thing” applies in team composition as well. Whether it’s retail customer service, sports teams or office workers, it pays to understand the role your star employees play in delivering top team performance. Strike a balance that encourages others to perform well, but doesn’t overload the team ecosystem.
A modified version of this post appeared as part of Smartbrief’s Originals series.
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