“Superstar” employees. Managers want to hire them, and the rest of us, on some level, probably hope to be seen as one. But sometimes, exceptional employees do more harm than good.
Top performers who tend to earn this “superstar” accolade are described as “certain employees (who) stand out above the rest,” according to Sara Pollack, a VP at ClearCompany Talent Management Software.
“Their work is higher quality, they are more dedicated, and simply put, they drive the performance of their team and the organization,” Pollack wrote. “Superstar employees have a heightened ability to prioritize in such a way that enables the company to work smarter and more efficiently. High-performing superstar employees have a higher emotional intelligence as well. Subsequently, this enables them to raise performance and productivity rates of the employees around them.”
The rate at which superstars are said to enhance their overall team’s productivity is by a not insignificant margin. In fact, according to research cited by Pollack, when a superstar employee joins a team, department-level output will increase by as much as 54%. Even after that employee leaves the team, a 48% increase in productivity will still be left in their wake. And because superstars are known to put in so much additional time and work — to consistently go “above and beyond” — they can generate as much as 80% of a business’ profits,
So, what could be wrong with relying on a “star performer” to enhance the productivity, quality and overall output of a team? A few things.
Research by Harvard found that it’s better to avoid hiring a toxic employee than it is to hire a superstar. That’s because if a superstar isn’t a team player and is instead more focused on earning individual recognition and rewards, it can give rise to a culture of competitiveness. The short-term impact may be an increase in performance and productivity across the team, sure. But a rise in burnout and turnover is likely to be the end result in the long run.
In fact, according to Harvard’s study, a top performer can add approximately $5,300 to a company’s bottom line, but if that same employee exhibits toxic behavior, they can cost the company around $12,500 in turnover costs. And because many of the qualities that earn someone a “superstar” distinction — extreme confidence, charisma and over-productivity — are also found in toxic employees, the potential for overlap between these two categories is significant.
Consistently, the accolade of “superstar” isn’t given based on ability alone. It’s more so driven by the amount of time, energy and dedication someone is seen as giving to their job. For overachievers, the amount of emphasis they place on their job oftentimes has roots in a need for perfection or, even deeper, a lack of belief in their own worth. Because of these underlying psychological motivations, they’ll give their all to being seen as valuable at work, sometimes at the expense of their personal health and sense of work-life balance. Because of that, when companies seek to bring on “superstar talent,” what they actually may be looking to do is find and exploit workers whose sense of identity is overly linked to their job. The desire to continue being seen as a star performer makes it difficult for these individuals to step back and take breaks when they need them — meaning, the company will squeeze out every drop of value they can from this type of worker until they’re ultimately too burned out.
Because superstars are seen as the by-default weight carriers on their team and the ones who are ultimately presumed to achieve more, their colleagues may struggle to receive a fair share of training and resources. Companies are encouraged to pour these resources into developing their top talent, in particular. If a manager is convinced that one of their direct reports is THE star performer on their team, that employee may receive an unequal amount of the manager’s time, attention and mentoring efforts, creating a disparity in the overall team’s access to professional development.
Let’s say the superstar employee doesn’t ask for this special time and attention and is truly someone who’s dedicated to lifting their colleagues up alongside them. Being the “pet” of their company’s leadership may nevertheless earn them resentment and hostility from their peers, leading to a hostile work environment. Conversely, perhaps all are in agreement that this particular colleague really is remarkable and a valuable resource at work, and resentment isn’t a problem. The end result can still be a “bottleneck” effect in which the superstar employee becomes overly relied upon by their colleagues. This, too, can contribute to a lack of growth and development across the team, if there’s the belief that “person X can do it better anyway.”
Being designated a “superstar” employee is by no means an objective process. It’s inherently tied to how you’re seen by those in leadership — i.e., by other human beings. These individuals could carry unconscious biases, and it’s possible they’ll be more inclined to recognize “superstar” potential in employees who remind them of themselves. And when most companies’ leadership remains so overwhelmingly white, cis, straight and male — who gets to become the “star performer” in those spaces? Is it really the case that, having already proven their merit, star performers then receive extra resources, training and attention — or could the inverse be true?
In the end, a company or department is able to achieve what it does because of the teams it employs. Not simply superstar individuals. This belief in rare and solitary top performers — namely, in prizing individual over collective achievements — feels like a distinctly American phenomenon. And it’s one that should carry less weight in the workplace.