Individual Talent Surplus Can Reduce Team Performance 

Roderick Swaab

Roderick Swaab

More talent on a team doesn’t always increase team performance, particularly when team member must coordinate their efforts.

In fact, status conflicts based on talent differences can undermine team coordination during hand-offs for interdependent tasks, found INSEAD’s Roderick I. Swaab and Michael Schaerer, with Eric M. Anicich and Adam Galinsky of Columbia and VU University Amsterdam’s Richard Ronay.

Michael Schaerer

Michael Schaerer

Swaab and colleagues confirmed that most people believe there is a linear relationship between talent and performance:  They expect that more talent is consistently associated with improved performance.

However, the research team found an exception to this presumed rule when they analyzed National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball team and player data from 2002 through 2012.

Eric M. Anicich

Eric M. Anicich

They evaluated team performance in interdependent game tasks in basketball, a “zero sum game” because when one player shoots other players lose the opportunity to shoot at that time.
As a result, basketball players must coordinate efforts to position team members for as many shots as possible in a limited time.

Richard Ronay

Richard Ronay

In contrast, Swaab’s group studied independent sports performance in baseball.
In this game, players hit the ball in an assigned order and one player’s turn at bat does not eliminate another player’s turn to hit.
Further, each baseball player may hit a home run independent of other teammates’ batting skill, so each individual’s talent additively contributes to the team outcome.

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky

Swaab’s team found that more talent is not associated with better performance when team members needed to coordinate interdependent tasks, as in basketball.
They called this the “too-much-talent effect”:  “When teams need to come together, more talent can tear them apart.”
In this case, they concluded that role differentiation is essential for optimal performance during interdependent tasks to ensure diverse capabilities in addition to willingness to collaborate.

Boris Groysberg

Boris Groysberg

This finding can be generalized to business organizations, which may experience decreased team performance if highly talented team members are unable to collaborate on interdependent tasks.
In addition, a surplus of top talent can undermine an organization’s profitability due to the high cost of attracting and hiring “stars.”

This “too-much-talent” effect was also demonstrated among Wall Street sell-side equity research analysts by Harvard Business School’s Boris Groysberg and Jeffrey T. Polzer with Hillary Anger Elfenbein of Washington University.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein

Hillary Anger Elfenbein

Increasing the number of talented analysts increased the firm’s overall performance to a point, then more stars actually decreased performance.
This effect was especially prominent when strong performers were concentrated in a small number of sectors.

As in professional sports, this “too-much-talent” effect could reflect a suboptimal integration and collaboration among analysts with similar expertise, controlling for individual performance, department size or specialization, or firm prestige.

Jennifer R. Overbeck

Jennifer R. Overbeck

Laboratory studies with volunteers confirm observations of the “too-much-talent” effect among professional athletes and Wall Street analysts, in research by University of Utah’s Jennifer R. Overbeck, Joshua Correll, and Bernadette Park.

They concluded that task groups need a few high-status members as leaders, and many more member-followers to contribute and implement work while supporting group direction.

Arthur Colman

Arthur Colman

When this “status sorting” is not explicit, Overbeck and team noted that a differentiated status hierarchy will evolve as status-seeking members vie for authority.
In rare cases, status sorting must be implemented through organizational design and responsibility definition, echoing earlier observations by University of California San Francisco’s Arthur D. Colman and W. Harold Bexton of the A.K. Rice Institute.

  • How have you managed “too-much-talent” effect in organizations?
  • To what extent do you encourage “status sorting” in your organization?

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4 thoughts on “Individual Talent Surplus Can Reduce Team Performance 

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Zac Reichert, M.A. wrote:
    Very interesting! I love team dynamics and this is a great concept that might get overlooked in the process.

    Kathryn Welds responded:
    Thanks so much for your, comment, Zac.
    Gary W. Kelly pointed out that teams work best when coordinating skillful efforts: “It is not the conductor that makes the music–it is the musicians carefully working together that make the music beautiful.”
    This analogy suggests the importance of knowing, accessing, and coordinating the strengths of team members for optimal performance.

    1. Kin

      Wonderful post, Kathryn!

      In music, the best orchestras have always consisted of outstanding orchestral musicians, rather than a mere collection of the leading world-class instrumentalists. While both groups of players are technically and musically proficient, it is the former group who have proven to possess a fully sound concept of ensemble-playing and the ability to blend seamlessly with their respective orchestral section. The latter group may or may not have developed these essential skills in order to pass through an orchestral audition, let alone succeed and contribute effectively in an orchestra, no matter how brilliant they may be as soloists.

      1. kathrynwelds Post author

        Thanks so much, Kin, for the reminder that individual performance excellence may not be accompanied by skillful collaboration, required in the team effort required for expert group performance. Just as IQ is best when accompanied by EQ, individual virtuoso performance is best when accompanied by expert collaboration skills.

  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    Gary W. Kelly wrote:
    To me, this appears to be a focus problem. Talent seems to be defined too narrowly. Why is it that the quarterback in a football game gets the credit, often to the exclusion of any defense that kept that quarterback from being sacked? The problem is not one of a talent difference, but a focus difference. People watch the quarterback–fixate on that contribution–while ignoring the contribution of all those other players who made sure the quarterback made the play. Those other players are equally talented–not as quarterbacks, but as players in their own positions. The “talent” of the quarterback is exaggerated–given an artificial value that it lacks when examined rationally.

    The same pattern is alive and well in organizations. The CEO gets the credit for the last quarter’s bottom line, even though the CEO cannot even name what talent produced the results, or do the job of any of the people who were the “real talent” behind the success.

    It is not the conductor that makes the music–it is the musicians carefully working together that make the music beautiful. The focus on the conductor alone is likely not worth attending. If the music was silent, and only the conductors performance seen, would anyone pay to attend the concert?

    It is time to understand that our emphasis is cultural, primitive, and can be changed. We can educate ourselves and change our culture to balance our appreciation, shift our focus, and enjoy the entire performance.

    Kathryn Welds replied:
    Thanks for this astute analysis, Gary, and for the apt example from football teamwork to complement comparisons by Roderick Swaab’s group of baseball and basketball performance.
    Your comment suggests the value of identifying each team member’s best strengths, then skillfully coordinating these efforts to enhance performance.
    Your music example memorably illustrates the contribution of this coordination efforts, but reminds that the coordinator must have expertise from a number of individuals to synthesize: “It is not the conductor that makes the music–it is the musicians carefully working together that make the music beautiful.”


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