cooperation makes it happen

Who is the ‘Lebron’ of your office? Star employees bring 1 weird benefit

“Individuals need to establish their own records of excellence in order to shine.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 15: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to a call by the officials against the Golden State Warriors during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Chase Center on March 15, 2021 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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When teams perform well, every member of the team is supposed to benefit.

… right? Not so fast, says a new study out of Cornell University published in Personnel Psychology. If that team includes a “star,” they’ll often get more credit than their teammates when their work is successful. But this cuts both ways. When collaborations don’t go well, most of the blame will be placed on the star.

The authors define a star for the purposes of the study as “someone who demonstrates exceptional performance and enjoys broad visibility relative to industry peers.” Rebecca Kehoe, associate professor of human resource studies at Cornell’s ILR School, delved into the psychology of the star mentality for the study.

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“The idea here is that because stars have such well-established records of performance, people tend to assume that stars wield disproportionate influence in their collaborations — that they’re calling the shots and making the important decisions,” Kehoe tells Inverse. “As a result, we tend to attribute the performance of stars’ collaborative endeavors — whether good or bad — to stars themselves, rather than to the individuals collaborating with them.”

Think of Lebron James. When the Los Angeles Lakers perform well, fans say it’s due to his superior ability. But when they lose, it’s attributed to him having an off-game.

For those on the way up — people who “have their own independent markers of status” and particularly when they “demonstrate their own performance potential independent of the star,” the Anthony Davises, if you will — this star power effect is less pronounced, Kehoe says. They can still receive more credit even when working with stars, but they’re better off in the case of failures.

We may remember the superstars — just ask the 1992 Olympic dream team — but the success of a franchise is a team effort. Getty Images

Kehoe and her co-author, F. Scott Bentley, reached this conclusion by studying the hedge fund industry, tracking the mobility of managers to other firms. When those funds were successful, the managers got a status boost that enabled them to get positions at higher-status firms, Kehoe says.

On the other end, fund failure led managers to get jobs at lower-status firms. These effects didn’t extend to non-star fund managers, who received less of a status boost after successes, but also less of a hit after failures.

Kehoe says she and her co-author are confident the findings apply to industries where collaboration is common and “where performance has a reasonable degree of visibility to prospective employers.”

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The Strategy — While there are benefits to working with a star, including opportunities for learning, improved performance, and increased visibility, the Cornell research shows the tradeoff is that you may receive less credit for successful work. Thankfully, in the case of failure, stars can shoulder the blame, “an important consideration in collaborative contexts where stakes are particularly high and performance is less certain,” Kehoe says.

“A second, related takeaway is that you can’t count on a star to carry you to the top,” she adds. “Stars can share knowledge, offer guidance, and attract visibility that benefits their colleagues’ work, but at the end of the day, individuals need to establish their own records of excellence in order to shine.”

Why this strategy matters to you Teamwork is common in many organizations, as are star employees. The benefits and drawbacks of such collaborative work should be taken into consideration when embarking on new projects.

Kehoe says it’s important that each individual identify what’s most important to them in collaborative settings.

“Is it the opportunity to learn and develop working alongside a star, or is now the time that it’s really important for the person to shine?” she says. “These priorities should guide decisions related to who people collaborate with, as well as the investments they make in their own independent work outside a collaboration.”

“If, however, there’s a desire to showcase the performance of non-star employees in a more visible way, then pairing them with a star may not be the best approach.”

How you can implement this strategy — While the implications of this research should give individuals pause when approaching teamwork, it should also change how organizations manage employees.

The findings of the study suggest that managers being clear about goals and keeping work allocation in mind will help the team. It’s a bit like workplace sabermetrics.

“If the primary goal is for a star to support the development of other individuals, then pairing stars with non-stars is a good first step in that direction — our findings don’t change that recommendation,” Kehoe says. “If, however, there’s a desire to showcase the performance of non-star employees in a more visible way, then pairing them with a star may not be the best approach.”

The exception there is high-risk assignments, which would benefit from a star’s expertise and their tendency to shoulder the blame if things go awry.

In these situations, stars may have a more positive impact if they’re put at the forefront. It’s just a matter of looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of non-star employees in a given situation. In these cases, Kehoe says, stars are likely to have a more positive impact on the rest of the workforce.

“Often managers focus on the question of how they should manage stars to make the most of their potential,” she says. “Our study underscores that there’s not one right answer to this question — and that even in the context of a single organization or a single star, the answer may vary from one project to the next.”

Rebecca Kehoe of Cornell’s ILR School thinks managers should know, like in professional sports, when to deploy their star employees and when to take a more Moneyball-oriented approach to tackling tasks.Shutterstock

The strategy's side effects — We often think of stars sucking up all the credit when really it’s the teams behind them that make successes happen. But the Cornell research shows there’s more nuance behind this effect.

“There’s a sense that this is another example of the idea that ‘the rich get richer’ at play in the work context,” Kehoe says. “And there may be some truth to this, but I think our findings [about failures] point to an important caveat related to this interpretation.”

The Inverse analysis — Clearly, organizations and team members benefit from the contributions and knowledge of stars, but the latter has to be prepared for the fact they may not always be recognized for their work. It’s important for individuals, if they have a choice, to choose who they work with carefully. Organizations also need to be more mindful of the needs of up-and-coming team members.

Abstract Building on the notion of cumulative advantage, we undertake a nuanced examination of how collaborating with a star affects attributions of credit and blame to nonstars in collaborative endeavors. Situating our inquiry in the US hedge fund industry, we hypothesize two‐way interactions predicting that collaboration with a star comanager will weaken both the positive effect of comanaged fund success and the negative effect of comanaged fund failure on nonstar managers’ professional status attainment (i.e., the status of a manager's subsequent employing firm). Specifically, we argue that the involvement of a star comanager will weaken prospective employers’ attributions for positive or negative performance to a focal nonstar manager, due to presumptions of the star's disproportionate influence in collaborative decisions. We then theorize a series of three‐way interactions specifying the roles of other signals of a nonstar manager's competence in this process. More precisely, we argue that a nonstar's performance outside the collaborative context and the status of the nonstar's current employer will weaken the dampening effect of comanaging with a star in the context of success and strengthen the favorable, blame‐reducing effect of comanaging with a star in the context of failure. Therefore, we suggest that nonstars who can signal their competence with these independent status signals will achieve greater professional status attainment than will those lacking such signals following both collaborative success and collaborative failure with a star. Our primary analyses support our hypotheses, while our supplementary analyses offer corroborative support for theorized mechanisms and evidence to address alternative explanations.
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