Working with a superstar
Monday, July 15, 2019
By Tom Snee

Workplace stars often make considerable contributions to their team’s overall success, but a new study from the University of Iowa finds that success often comes at the expense of co-workers.

The study finds that when workers rely on their team’s star for input, they are less likely to come up with their own ideas or explore alternatives, stunting their own creativity and learning. The closer that star is to the center of the team’s decision-making process, the more likely the rest of the team is to defer.

“While creative stars can in some ways be a creative boon for teams, they may in other ways act as a bane by way of fostering a harmful overdependence on teammates that reduces the learning needed for creativity to emerge,” says Ning Li, study co-author and professor of management and entrepreneurialism at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

The study used survey data gathered from thousands of workers and their supervisors at several large businesses from numerous industries in China. The surveys asked respondents to identify the most creative members of their teams and how team members interrelated.

The survey found that while the creative star boosted the team’s overall creativity, that person also reduced the ability of non-stars to learn new things about the work. The closer the star was to the center of the team, the more proportionate the harmful effect was on co-workers.

The findings also suggested that managers can mitigate the effect through better team coordination and focusing professional development on non-stars. This is especially true of teams that participate in a war for talent with competitors, focusing their hiring efforts on adding highly productive employees while paying less attention to developing those they already have.

“Managers need to acknowledge and support the work of non-stars to sustain team creativity,” Li says. “Solely focusing on the most talented individuals over still-valuable non-stars is likely an unwise practice when trying to promote creative processes.”

The paper, “The Boone and Bane of Creative “Stars,” was published in the Academy of Management Journal. This research was also recently covered by Money: "The Surprising Way That Working Alongside the Company Superstar Can Hurt Your Career."