The Tortoise and the Hare – or Average Beats the Superstar

Working with companies on strategy is fun and exciting. At the end of the day, however, it comes down to execution and the people that have to make it happen. I would say that more than half of my conversations with business owners revolve around people – either finding and keeping the good ones or getting rid of the bad ones.

Typically talking about the bad ones dominates the conversation. No one likes firing anyone and we have this crazy idea that if we just don’t look, it will get better or go away naturally. It doesn’t. It’s actually worse than that, the damage a toxic employee can do to an otherwise great organization is immense.

A great piece on this very topic, “One Bad Apple Spoils the Company,” talks about the desire we all have to find superstars. In fact, the research points out that the average employee is more productive and costs the company half of what the superstars do.

Let’s look at that for a moment. Superstars are usually independent, (meaning don’t get in their way), but they also need a big team of people around them to make whatever it is they are supposed to do happen. Some, but not all, appreciate the team that makes it happen and are humble about their contribution to it. Most, however, have an ego that needs constant feeding to make them perform. In the desire to keep them happy, some behaviors are often ignored that are actually toxic to the greater workplace environment. The result of that is turnover, which is costly to any organization.

If you don’t believe me, or the research, just look at great sports teams. The ones that win celebrate the contributions of all the players and are actually a team, no superstars, just a superstar team. Those that struggle are those that have one prima donna – usually a very talented athlete – that the other players resent because he or she treats them badly and gets “favored” nation status.

Successful work teams start with hiring for values and characteristics that are representative of the company. Someone who is overly productive but disses teammates or the company will create an uncomfortable environment for those around them, ultimately lowering overall productivity either by dragging others into the “toxic” complaining, or causing them to leave, and increasing turnover.

As hard as it may be, sometimes getting rid of the super star can be the best move for a company’s performance. As the study points out, productivity actually goes up well beyond the production of the superstar when the “toxic” person is removed. Superstars aren’t all bad, but working with a solid team of average, committed players is likely to create a more productive and cohesive workplace with better morale and better results.