Is your organization looking for its next new hire, that superstar performer to take things to the next level? Be careful: Organizations are greater than just one individual. If you’re that superstar, remember to be a good team player. You’ll feel better about your job and you’ll perform at an even higher level.
Organizations spend a lot of resources to attract and retain high performers who can outsell, out-produce and out-think others, but they often don’t think about how their addition will impact the current team.
High performers do create benefits for the entire group. When they do something good, it can reflect well on the whole group. This can make leaders happier with the whole team and even lead to perks, such as bonuses for the team. They can also inspire individuals to raise expectations for themselves and bring up the achievements of the whole team.
But high performers also can cause jealousy and envy among other group members, who may worry they are getting the preferred work assignments and highest pay. The new arrivals can also set the bar higher for the whole team in the boss’s eye, which could annoy some co-workers.
Many managers miss or underestimate the conflict. They tell these hotshot new recruits that they’re the new stand-out, superstar employee, but then they add them onto collaborative teams and tell them to fit right in. Those mixed signals set up high performers as targets for aggression, exclusion and ridicule from other team members. And this can cause them flounder on the team without peer support and even ultimately to leave the organization.
Along with four fellow researchers, I recently studied the effects of adding new high-performers to work teams. We found that not only do high achievers feel ostracized by peers who see them as threatening, they also feel targeted for support by other peers who see them as beneficial. This paradox has high performers feeling caught in the middle and the contradiction takes a toll. The push and pull of experiencing both friendly and hostile responses from the team can be disorienting and more harmful to one’s work and health than hostility alone. The tension is only amplified as more and more organizations put greater emphasis on teamwork.
But there are some things both managers and high performers can do:
1. Anticipate conflict and pay attention to the team climate. If you know that adding a high performer to the team might shake things up, be ready to meet the potential conflict head-on. And understand that team members’ feelings don’t just boil down to differences in pay. Make it clear to team members that undermining high performance will not be tolerated.
2. Re-evaluate how you measure individual success. When appropriate, maintain distinctive goals for individuals rather than setting collective goals. But also create a more balanced performance review system that values contributions beyond just accomplishing tasks (the dimension that favors high performers most). These could include things like helping others, making constructive suggestions and being a good team player – all critical individual contributions for a well-run organization.
3. Emphasize how everyone wins. Talk up the benefits of having a high performer on the team, like getting everyone closer to collective group goals, and how they outweigh any threats. Also consider setting up star performers as mentors who can help others in the group learn and grow.
4. Coach high performers to be team players. Encourage them to think and act like part of the team. They’ll be less likely to dismiss others’ contributions and hoard the credit and good assignments for themselves. This will make them seem less threatening to other team members.
5. Provide emotional support. Both the high performer and the other team members will need to feel like you hear their concerns and have you in their corner. Watch for signs of isolation and disengagement with your star performers and step in quickly if you see those signs.
For high performers:
1. Be a friend. Make an effort to form strong bonds with co-workers.
2. Share the love. Don’t grab every opportunity in the group and leave none for your co-workers.
3. Be a cheerleader. Respect your co-workers, help them succeed by sharing your expertise, and be sure to celebrate their successes. Make a point to congratulate a co-worker who finishes a big project, makes an impressive sale, or hits a tight deadline.
4. Be humble. While you’re celebrating others’ achievements, don’t brag about your own or compare their success to yours.
5. Be perceptive. Don’t get caught off guard by the mixed feelings others have about you.
6. Ask for help. You won’t have the answers to everything – especially when you are new to an organization – so ask for help when you need it. Other team members will appreciate your acknowledgement that you need their expertise.
Though word spreads quickly about individual performance and team members are constantly comparing themselves, with a little effort, the worst of these effects can hopefully be avoided.
Hui Liao is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.