How to manage the star in your midst

tall-poppyHow to handle your best performers is something I’ve touched on a few times before.  For instance, a study from last year highlighted the importance of your star performers, and went as far as to suggest that they should receive the lions share of your attention, and be placed at the heart of the action.

“The extra miler has more of an influence in the center because they have more contact with other workers and because others can see what they’re doing,” the authors say. “Through this role modeling, everyone on the team becomes better. If the extra miler is on the periphery, they don’t come into contact with as many team members and nobody notices them.”

Likewise, a study from earlier this year found that rewarding your best performers is generally a good thing, as employees look to their peers to better understand the workplace.  So just as nepotism or favoritism is bad, rewarding your best performers is generally a good thing.

“In contrast to much of the conventional wisdom that recognizing individuals might somehow hurt the success of the team, we found that recognizing individual team members helps teams in two important ways,” the authors say. “First, team members observe one another’s behavior and set out to emulate the success of their team’s top performer. Rather than stimulate resentment in a team — as might be the case with financial rewards — public recognition of high performers actually motivates a strong desire to succeed in the rest of the team members. We call these ‘recognition spillover effects’ because they transfer from one team member to another.

“Second,” they continue, “because each team member is changing his or her behavior to match the actions of the most successful team member, the performance of the whole team rises. And we found that these spillover effects are magnified if the reward recipient is someone who is central to the team — i.e., someone that other team members often turn to for assistance.”

The other side of the coin

Of course, that isn’t to say that things are always rosy for high performers.  Previous studies have shown, for instance, that insecure managers can bully high performers due to their perceived threat to their status, with this sense of envy also spreading to the wider workforce.

This is because we tend to compare ourselves with those above us rather than below us in the social hierarchy at work.  This phenomenon has its roots in our difficulty in creating an accurate perception of our self, with a tendency to over-inflate our abilities.

By believing we deserve comparison with the star performers in the office, when we eventually fall short, it causes something of a jolt to our self-esteem.  The study suggests that this can lead to the top performers being ostracized, whether in social occasions or in the workplace itself.

It’s believed that this kind of thing is particularly common in less dynamic environments where politics tends to play a larger role than performance in how we progress.

There can also be a sense of over-loading these star performers with extra work, even if it’s of the rather mundane variety rather than leaving them to add value where their skills really stand out.  This can especially be the case if the personality that drives their success ends up rubbing colleagues up the wrong way.

As you can see, it’s far from an easy thing when you have a superstar in your midst, but the performance boost your team can receive as a result surely makes it worthwhile to persevere with.


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