Research Brief

Star employees and high performers positively impact peers up to a point

Employees chatting in a circle.
Credit: Getty/filadendron

Every organization has “star” employees whose job performance outpaces their co-workers. Managers, in turn, are constantly trying to understand how best to deploy and use those stars across projects.

Research by University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management Assistant Professor Elizabeth Campbell, published in Personnel Psychology, found that having star employees in workgroups positively influenced non-star job performance up to a certain point. After that, there are diminishing returns.

“Too many stars on one team will turn that positive impact into a negative,” said Campbell, who is also a Lawrence Research Fellow. “Managers who spread stars out across work groups, not stack them all together, should reap the largest positive impact on overall performance.”

Campbell and her colleagues looked at this relationship in a healthcare system and, separately, in a commercial real estate firm. To assess the impact stars have on their non-star peers, they created the “group star proportion” measure, or how many star employees were part of a given work team. While stars are relatively rare, this understudied question is one that has immediate impact for managers.

They found that the optimal mix of a team is around 25% stars and 75% non-stars. Further, the researchers point out that how long employees have been at a company impacts this relationship, with newer employees learning the most from stars within their workgroup.

“The opportunity for newer employees to work with stars can be a very useful onboarding tactic,” explained Campbell. “The behaviors stars exhibit are likely to be modeled by those new employees and, thus, are more likely to benefit their performance at a company.”

In separate research, Campbell examined how people’s motivation to outperform others affected their job performance around high performers.

In that research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Campbell found evidence that employees who were motivated to prove themselves viewed high performers as unfavorable points of comparison. Seeing high performers as competition hurt their subsequent motivation and performance. Conversely, for employees less focused on proving themselves, working with high performers increased their confidence and motivated higher performance.

Taken together, the two pieces of research underscore that high performers affect the job performance and motivation of their peers in nuanced ways.

“We hope that this research will help organizations make more informed staffing choices that can fuel the motivation and capitalize on the potential of more members of their workforce,” said Campbell. “The bottom line is that stars and high performers individually bring value, but their impact can have positive ripple effects if leaders are more thoughtful of where — and with whom — stars are deployed throughout the organization."

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