The star system – bad news for teamwork?

Photo by Coredy


Bob Sutton writes in his blog about Boris Groysberg’s Research on star employees – Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth:

The results of this research are interesting because, while some leaders might think that there is no such thing as having too many stars, Boris and his colleagues found a curvilinear relationship between the number of stars in a group and overall performance — so, having a few stars help, have a few more doesn’t hurt (but doesn’t help), but groups reach a tipping point where too many stars seem to dampen performance. Groysberg and his colleagues suggest that the “too many cooks” problem happens partly because, when a group is filled with individual stars, the dynamics degenerate because people devote excessive attention to the internal status game and competition and hesitate to share information that may help the group as a whole, but will threaten their standing in the group. In other words, when there are too many stars, people focus on what is best for themselves, see other top performers as people who are in the way rather than people they should help, and the overall performance of the team seems less important.

Now, I haven’t read the article (it hasn’t been published yet), but I have a general problem with the basic assumption, as it is described in the blog post, about stars and their importance in teamwork. Sutton writes: “leaders might think that there is no such thing as having too many stars”. The whole notion of looking at people as stars is in my opinion, misplaced. For me, this represents a common misunderstanding about what teamwork really is. I am not surprised this research was conducted in Wall Street, where this kind of thinking is probably common place and where individuality is put on a pedestal and adored as a pagan god. Teamwork is about differences.

Because if you think about stars in a team it implies that all team members are equal or do the same thing and thus, one can outshine the other. It also implies that performance is the result of individual effort and not of a team effort – the interaction between the unique strengths and talents that each team member brings to the table.

The importance of individuality and stars in teamwork might be a conventional wisdom and an underlying assumption that is unfit for the world we now live in and the challenges modern business face. In a fascinating article called “Are smart people overrated?” that appears in his book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.

When a team or system is the star there is an understanding that individual performance and ability are important, but just in the way it aligns with the bigger scheme of things. There is an understanding that each member of the team or system has an important role that he or she has to perform to best of their abilities and that the final outcome is dependent on each individual contribution. It is based on the assumption that each member is indispensible in his or her contribution to the team effort, because he brings something special that the rest of the team cannot do. It is a synergy between different individuals with different strengths and talents that could not be a threat to each other or be in competition with each other, because each and every one of them is unique in the contribution to the team.

What do you think about the star terminology?