When it comes to performance, it can seem like more should always equal better. And yet, an important question we’ve found ourselves asking, is whether organizations should always strive to maximize their number of star performers? Interestingly, it seems that having "an entire team of superstars can be a total disaster."1
There are several different factors that can impact individuals’ performance at work. People are driven by different goals - whether they are intrinsic (or internal, like a personal goal) or extrinsic (or external, like pay) - and vary in their engagement level. People may also have different abilities or skill proficiency, which can impact how much they enjoy their job if they do not feel challenged by the tasks, or conversely, if they feel completely under qualified or ill-equipped.
When thinking of productive employees in the workplace, two “types” may come to mind: 1) the high-performing, challenge-seeking “star performers”, and 2) the satisfied, stability driven, and dependable middle performers.
Star performers appear to be skilled workers who seek out challenging tasks and seek advancement and vertical development, whereas middle performers appear to be experienced workers who are driven by security and stability.
Research would suggest that in order to have a well-functioning organization and team, it is important to leverage the strengths of both star performers and stable middle performers. Star performers help drive innovation and new endeavours, while stable performers act as reliable support to achieve day-to-day functioning smoothly. While at first glance, it might seem important to equip your team with a roster full of “stars,” science supports the balance and strategic mix of stars and stable performers.
To understand how employees contribute to a well-functioning organization, one can look to smaller units, specifically, teams. In an effective team, members coordinate with one another to complete complex tasks (at a high quality).
Try to think of a team you’ve come across that excels; you probably could attribute a large portion of the success to a single person, perhaps the team leader, or a star performer whose contribution was most salient. Which naturally begs the question, how much more could performance be enhanced with not just one star performer, but a team full of star performers?
Surprisingly, evidence supports the finding that teams with only top performers, on average, perform much worse.² In studies examining the composition of NBA basketball teams over the years, results show that teams “with only three star players won more games than teams with four or five. The star-studded teams had fewer assists, missed more of their shots and grabbed fewer rebounds.”1 Similarly on Wall Street, financial teams with “mostly top analysts make worse financial recommendations than teams that have a mix of stars and average performers.”1
One key reason star-loaded teams backfire is that it often prevents organizational learning. “In a learning organization, problems and errors must be reported so everyone can learn.”3 Without mistakes or employees who veer from the norm, organizational processes can remain unchanged and unchallenged.
A team’s success requires the effort and performance of all of its parts. An example of this is the NBA player, Shane Battier, who the New York Times called the “[n]o stats all-star.” He didn’t “score a lot of points or grab that many rebounds but when he was on the court every one of his teams was statistically more likely to win… Shane didn’t need to be the best player on his team, or even the third best to add real value.”1
“You have to have an understanding of what everyone’s role is and the teams that win…are the teams where everyone fulfills a very specific role to the best of their ability.”1
The best way to get a team to excel and perform is to “do a good job of setting up and supporting the group itself”3 which inevitably requires both star performers and support members.
How can you ensure that both star and average performers at your workplace are supported and engaged, resulting in long-term employment and superior performance?
One area of increasing focus is employee engagement. Interest in engagement has risen dramatically, with over 82 percent of organizations having formal employee engagement programs.4 CEOs have identified that employee engagement is one of the most critical factors they need to understand and drive performance.5
Despite this promising growth in engagement programs, only about one in five employees say that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.6
Given that organizations are constantly trying to attract and retain top talent, engagement is critical for organizations to monitor and develop. Especially when the average cost of turnover per employee can cost an organization between 1.5 to 2 times the employee’s annual salary.7
“Given that all ideas, products, and business results ultimately come from the activities of employees, it’s likely that companies able to consistently inspire their people in ways that drive real business results will outperform the rest.”5
Employees who outperform their colleagues dramatically are generally characterized by three key attributes: they are talented, experienced, and engaged at work.8 Employees can possess the experience and skills to produce quality work, but they may not reach their full potential without being motivated and engaged.
Through our organizational health and effectiveness client work at Monark,9 we have identified three archetypes of employees irrespective of industry or company size:
1) Highly Engaged & Productive. Those who are passionate about their jobs, love what they do, and believe their job is fundamental to their identity. They are often referred to as “engaged workaholics.”10 They organize their workload efficiently and drive productivity in the workplace with above and beyond discretionary behaviours.
2) Average, Low-Disengaged Worker. Those who generally like their jobs, or the people they work for/with, but are not fully absorbed into their work. They tend to comply with regular working hours but may often be frustrated or bothered by people or miscellaneous organizational grievances.
3) Actively Disengaged & Disgruntled. Those who don’t necessarily love their jobs and are unclear how their work contributes to the organization’s vision or purpose. They tend to grow increasingly frustrated and hostile towards the organization and may detract from others around them by engaging in counterproductive behaviours.
Decades of research by Gallup has similarly identified three types of engagement at work:
1) Actively Engaged, 2) Disengaged, and 3) Actively Disengaged.11
Employees who are actively disengaged take away from the organization’s prosperity and growth, as they are more likely to “steal from their company, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays and drive customers away.”6
“Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost organizations nearly $483 billion to $605 billion USD in lost productivity.” 6
Though it is always beneficial to ensure your workforce is engaged and supported, for the actively disengaged employees, it may be beneficial to allow these employees to turnover. Some may feel obligated to keep disengaged or low performers, but by doing so, they may lower “the moral of everyone else, even average performers.”12
Organizations need to ensure that employees are adequately challenged in their day-to-day work. Research finds that employees who experience “challenge” stress were more satisfied with their job, more committed, and less likely to leave the organization.13
Challenge stress refers to job demands that are viewed as creating a challenge or opportunity for growth and achievement and includes factors like high levels of workload, time pressure, and job scope. In contrast, people are more likely to feel hindered by stress created from role ambiguity and organizational politics, which act as obstacles to personal growth and accomplishment. Employees want to feel that they have made small steps forward, or some level of progress. By experiencing these “small wins”, employees can experience more positive moods and higher motivation.14
“To specify ends but not means is a more demanding leadership responsibility than merely articulating a compelling purpose for a team and then walking away, leaving members entirely on their own to try and achieve that purpose.” 3
While managers can provide the goal on what needs to be done, they must also ensure employees are given freedom and control over how the work is completed. Leaders must clarify the purpose and goals that employees and teams must achieve, but by providing employees with flexibility on how to approach the work, employees may experience higher levels of engagement. Employees can differ, however, on their preferred level of autonomy.
“Put simply, work becomes more meaningful when people know that their actions are noticed and appreciated.”15
All employees, regardless of whether they are average or star performers, may feel demotivated if they perceive their contributions are not recognized or rewarded. While research supports that simply giving employees a higher wage does not create more satisfaction, 16 providing clear ties to recognition or performance rewards may increase employee motivation. Rewards can come in the form of monetary compensation, such as bonuses, extra wellness incentives, and stock options, or in form of recognition.
No matter how skilled an employee is, without enough time to focus deeply on a task, they may not be able to achieve high quality work. In the age of AI and advanced technology, for the modern knowledge worker and organization, success is often dependent on the ability to think critically and make high-quality decisions (versus efficiency), and as such, employees are most valuable and productive when able to produce work that comes from periods of deep work, characterized by intense focus, minimal distraction, and often producing valuable assets, innovative ideas and impactful outcomes. Although difficult to access, these modern employees recognize that the demand for knowledge and expertise is increasing, underscoring the importance of the time-intensive process of “manufacturing knowledge.” Organizations and leaders need to support employees by facilitating time for deep work, not just reactive, ‘ad-hoc’ work, where reflection, creativity and strategic thought are regular activities. Organizational Psychologist, Adam Grant, describes productivity with the following equation:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)20
“Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally.” 20
While there is certainly no silver bullet when it comes to forming and managing high-performance teams, it is in an organization's best interest to support and retain their top and average performers. A good selection process will help hire top talent, but it is the working environment that will foster productivity, and ultimately drive employee retention. Engagement and productivity go hand in hand, and that is why it is important to recognize and understand what drives the behaviour of individual employees so that organizations can help create an environment where they excel.
To better support employees and maximize engagement in average and star performers, organizations should focus on providing the following:
1. Grant, A. (2018, March). The problem with all-stars [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/worklife_with_adam_grant_the_problem_with_all_stars?referrer=playlist-worklife_with_adam_grant
2. Swaab, R.I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E.M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A.D. (2014). The too-much talent effect: Team interdependence determines when more talent is too much or not enough. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1581-1591.
3. Hackman, J. R. (2002). Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
4. The Engagement Institute. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.conference-board.org/subsites/index.cfm?id=15136
5. Mercer. (2017). Mercer Global talent trends study 2017. Retrieved from https://www.mercer.com/our-thinking/career/global-talent-hr-trends.html
6. Gallup. (2017). State of the American Workplace 2017. The Gallop Organization. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
7. Altman, J. (2017, January 18).How much does employee turnover really cost? HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/
8. Harter, J. (2015). Engage your long-term employees to improve performance. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2-6. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/03/engage-your-long-time-employees-to-improve-performance
9. Monark’s Organizational Health and Effectiveness Profile (OHEP) is a proprietary assessment that targets the measurement of key areas driving organizational success.
10. Grant, A. (2018). When work takes over your life. [Post]. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/when-work-takes-over-your-life-adam-grant/
11. Reilly, R. (2014). Five ways to improve employee engagement now. The Gallop Organization. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231581/five-ways-improve-employee-engagement.aspx
12. Williams, T. (n.d.). Don’t let low performers destroy your company. The Economist: Executive Education. Retrieved from https://execed.economist.com/blog/career-hacks/dont-let-low-performers-destroy-your-company
13. Podsakoff, N.P., LePine, J. A., LePine, M. A. (2007). Differential challenge stressor-hindrance stressor relationships with job attitudes, turnover intentions, turnover, and withdrawal behavior: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2),438-454. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17371090/
14. Amabile, T.M., & Kramer, S.J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review 89(5), 70-80. https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins
15. Cable, D., & Vermeulen, F. (2018). Making work meaningful: A leader’s guide. Mckinsey Quarterly, 4, 106-115. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/making-work-meaningful-a-leaders-guide
16. Cooper, B. B. (2016). The key to happiness at work isn’t money - it’s autonomy. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/676144/why-its-your-call-is-the-best-thing-you-can-say-to-keep-employees-happy/
17. Pfeffer, J. (2018). The overlooked essentials of employee well-being. Mckinsey Quarterly, 382-89. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-overlooked-essentials-of-employee-well-being?cid=other-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1809&hlkid=2c7ce2bf8b11478589a528162f6aac9b&hctky=9310562&hdpid=dbb532b2-9077-41d1-a18a-0a56da2dbba6
18. Lindsey, J. (2018). How to be more engaged at work. Berkeley Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_be_more_engaged_at_work
19. Ogbonnaya, C., Daniels,K., & Nielsen, K. (2017). Research: How incentive pay affects employees engagement, satisfaction, and trust. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2-4. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/03/research-how-incentive-pay-affects-employee-engagement-satisfaction-and-trust
20. Knowledge at Wharton. (2016). Deep work: The secret to achieving peak productivity. Retrieved from https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/deep-work-the-secret-to-achieving-peak-productivity/