When One Person’s High Performance Creates Resentment in Your Team

Executive Summary

Organizations face a dilemma in their hunt for talent. They fight to attract and retain high performers who stand out, but then place these prized recruits in collaborative groups and tell them to fit in. Many managers miss or underestimate the potential harm this can do. Often with good intentions, managers set up high performers as targets for sabotage, aggression, and exclusion. New research suggests that an emphasis on teamwork has amplified the risks for high performers. That’s partly because high performance is relative and based on social comparison. In communities with frequent interaction, opportunities for such comparison increase. Managers can address peer concerns that high performers threaten their welfare and resources by creating a more balanced performance review system that values team members’ contributions beyond task accomplishment — the dimension that most favors high performers. Second, and more importantly, managers can cultivate the understanding that everyone wins with high performers on the team.

Organizations face a dilemma in their hunt for talent. They pursue the proverbial “best and brightest” who can outsell, outthink, and outproduce their peers. So they spend sizable resources to attract and retain high performers who stand out. But often these organizations also want teams that function in solidarity. So they place their prized recruits in collaborative groups and tell them to fit in.

Many managers miss or underestimate the potential harm to high performers from their teams. Often with good intentions, managers set up high performers as targets for sabotage, aggression, and exclusion. As the Japanese proverb warns: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Some high performers exit their organizations to escape such negative social consequences. Those who stay often flounder without peer support. Research estimates over 30% of high performers feel a lack of engagement at work, and 25% expect to work elsewhere within a year.

With the rise in collaborative models of work, the problem gets worse. Our research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that an emphasis on teamwork in the modern workplace has amplified the risks for high performers. That’s partly because high performance is relative and based on social comparison. In communities with frequent interaction, opportunities for such comparison increase.

We draw our insights from a field study of 414 stylists at 120 Taiwanese salons, followed by an experiment involving 284 business students in the United States. The salons offered a context that reflects many characteristics of workgroups: a socially dynamic, open environment where stylists worked both individually and interdependently. Rewards were also determined based on both individual contribution and collective success. To cross-validate findings from the field study, we then chose a complementary approach: a…

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