This article was published in the 28-August-2014 issue of Finweek Magazine
We’ve all heard the catchphrases thrown around the workplace: the war for talent, managers needing to be talent magnets that attract A-players, and so on. Attracting top talent should be a top priority for competitive companies, because the more talented your team, the better the results you’ll get, right? Wrong. Ground-breaking new research indicates that there is a limit as to how much talent is good for your team. Too much talent can actually hurt, rather than help, you. Here’s why.
The ‘too-much-talent’ effect
In their research paper The Too-Much-Talent Effect: Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much Versus Not Enough, researchers Roderick Swaab, Michael Schaerer, Eric Anicich, Richard Ronay, and Adam Galinsky, at INSEAD in France, Columbia University in the US and VU University Amsterdam, explored an intriguing question: when and why does exceptional talent diminish team performance? Most of us would be happy to watch the soccer and basketball unfold on TV, but not this team of researchers. They looked at real data from national teams during the qualifications for the 2010 and 2014 Soccer World Cups. They also pored over regular season play data from all US NBA (National Basketball Association) teams from 2002 to 2012.
Their research uncovered the counter-intuitive ‘too-much-talent’ effect in sports teams. That is, team interdependence decides when more talent becomes too much and when it is not enough. And it is exactly when teams must come together, that more talent can break them apart.
“Most people believe that the relationship between talent and team performance is [a straight line] – the more their team is packed with talent, the better they will do,” says researcher Roderick Swaab. And they also expect this relationship to always stay positive. But it is not as simple as that. “Our latest research documenting a ‘too-much-talent effect’, reveals that, for teams requiring high levels of interdependence, like football and basketball, talent facilitates team performance… but only up to a point. Beyond this point, the benefits of adding more top talent will decrease and eventually hurt the team performance.”
Why does this happen? Sports such as these rely on team coordination to shine. With too many A-players jockeying for the spotlight and not coordinating their actions on the field or the court, the more A-players you add, the worse your team performs. The team members can actually end up working against each other, rather than with each other.
When the team players were relatively independent (for example in Major League Baseball in the US), the link between talent and team performance does not turn negative. In other words, when less coordination is needed between the players, more talent translates into better performance of the team as a whole. This is what most of us would expect.
We saw this play out catastrophically for France in the 2010 Football World Cup. France had one of the strongest teams in that tournament. Overflowing with football talent, hopes for the French squad were high. But their results were dismal. Plagued by internal bickering, the team floundered, failed to make it into the second round, and team members were flown home with their tails between their legs.
“But this research was on sports teams. What does this have to do with business?”, you may be asking. The issue of coordinating interdependent teams is, in fact, very relevant to the workplace. In a work team, just as in a sports squad, we commonly assume that pulling together the most talented people will yield the best results. And, in a sales force that works relatively independently of each other, adding more talent usually does translate into better performance. However, the situation is very different when teams need to coordinate their work closely: here, having too many talented members can unleash unhealthy competition over status and rank. The end-result: these super-talented teams perform worse, not better. In the bestselling TV series House of Cards, we saw this used to excellent effect recently by US Vice-President Frank Underwood (masterfully played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright). They hired two top PR people Seth Grayson and Connor Ellis on their staff, only to find them butting heads, jockeying for dominance as expected, and Connor eventually resigning.
Dealing with a talent surplus in the workplace
In these situations, what is the solution? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – it depends on the level of team interdependence, say the researchers. “When hiring for an opening in a team with low levels of interdependence, such as sales teams, hiring the most talented individuals may be a good strategy (because) these individuals will not have to work with each other,” explains Swaab.
However, when teams need high levels of interdependence, simply hiring a group of top talent may not be enough and could potentially hurt, instead of help, the team. “One solution”, offers Swaab, “is to hire fewer top talented individuals, something the Argentinian and French coach did during the 2014 World Cup when deciding not to select talented players like Carlos Tevez and Samir Nasri. Another option is to invest more in training team members how to coordinate effectively in different situations. Establishing a legitimate hierarchy, and formalising roles and responsibilities provides team members insight into what they must be able to do together without focusing their attention on jostling for intragroup rank.” It could also help to bring in older, more experienced team members as the glue to coordinate and bring together the less experienced ones.
So what is the key take-away? Don’t make the assumption that more talent always means better results. Because it is exactly when teams must come together, that more talent can break them apart.