Not only is that know-it-all on your team extra annoying, but that same coworker can also be bad for your own career.
Workplace superstars – the ones getting credit for great ideas and constantly called out for praise by managers – can negatively impact their peers’ performance, according to research published in the Academy of Management Journal earlier this year.
The professors analyzed research and development teams as well as sales teams to better understand how sought-out workplace stars impacted team performance. In instances where the star played a prominent role, others on the team were less likely to give significant input.
“When people rely on the star, they have no motivation to explore new ideas,” says Ning Li, associate professor of entrepreneurship and management at the University of Iowa and one of four researchers studying stars in the workplace. “You don’t want a star that completely dominates the conversation.”
The researchers defined workplace superstars by tracking their contributions to team creativity, which leads to innovation and turns into “a key source of organizational competitiveness,” Li adds. The researchers surveyed 676 employees from 84 R&D teams, along with 457 employees from 54 sales teams across dozens of cities in China. In each instance, they identified the workplace star and measured the team’s workflow, coordination, learning activities, creativity and the star’s role within the team.
The negative impact is greatest when the workplace star has the chance to fully express and implement his or her ideas. Seeing a peer get the spotlight makes us less motivated to share or implement our own ideas, the researchers find. A star worker also has an outsize impact when interacting with peers, which means you’re more likely to agree with their smart thinking versus stating your own. (While the team studied Chinese firms, Li thinks U.S.-based workers may be slightly more willing to contribute to these teams than their Chinese counterparts due to cultural differences in the workplace.)
It’s more damaging in the long run. As contributions from workplace stars overpower others, coworkers are less likely to acquire knowledge that’s relevant to the team and explore new perspectives to problem solving, he says. In other words, we start twiddling our thumbs. Ultimately that means worse teams — even if workplace stars contributions stay the same. “While a star on the team is good, you still want to encourage others to develop their own abilities,” he says.
So what can you do to compete?
If you’re managing the team, give workplace stars a chance to thrive — without being overpowering. (In Li’s research, the most creative employees who were not central to the team ended up helping others on their team instead of hurting their chances to succeed.) And carefully curating teams with an understanding of how each person contributes ideas is critical. “When the star is in a peripheral position and not so involved in the team process, they still bring a contribution to team creativity but they can also help [their peers] to learn and to explore,” Li says.
If you’re a peer, don’t sabotage the company know-it-all. The key is not to get rid of workplace stars, but to help balance them out, he says: “Look for teams where the rest of the members are strong.”