How 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 last 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.
How do stars function in a more collaborative environment though? That was the topic of a recent study, which hoped to examine whether stars thrive in cooperative climates.
The researchers identified the star performers via performance ratings, before then surveying the entire workforce to explore the benefits and threats they saw in each other, and also the level of support or criticism they received.
For instance, the researchers wanted to gauge whether star performers were a source of inspiration, as per the previous studies, or a threat to the other workers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, star performers tended to get the most negative treatment when their peers felt threatened themselves, in a form of tall poppy syndrome. By contrast, if most workers saw the star performers as a benefit to them, they would offer help and support to them.
At least that was the typical scenario, but it differed whenever the workplace was collaborative in nature. In collaborative environments, star performers tend to stand out as they break the solidarity of the group.
Friend or foe
Now, when this was explored further, the perception of the star seemed to be central to how they were treated. If employees regarded them as a friendly or supportive influence, then they would be helpful and cooperative with them. If they regarded them as a foe, the opposite would occur.
This should perhaps come as no surprise. 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.
The message seems to be that if we want cooperative workplaces, then we need to ensure employees feel confident and comfortable in their status, and therefore not threatened by any high performers among them.