The right number of stars for a team

How hard should you strive to keep star performers and when should you let them go? Andrew Hill explains in The Right Number of Stars For a Team.

Richard Hackman, a Harvard psychologist who has studied symphony orchestras, found that “grumpy orchestras played together slightly better than orchestras in which all the musicians were quite happy”, because, as he told the Harvard Business Review, “when we’re productive and we’ve done something good together we feel satisfied, not the other way around”. The presumption that harmony is all-important can even undermine performance if talented team members “self-censor their contributions” to keep the peace.

The assumption that a team full of overachieving stars will perform best also turns out to be unfounded, however. A study by Harvard Business School’s Boris Groysberg and others looked at sell-side equity analysts and found that the results of the leading research teams started to wane when the proportion of stars rose above a certain level – broadly, the point at which preening individuals’ selfishness and their clamour for more pay impinge on the whole team’s results. “Don’t overspend to recruit high-status employees,” concludes this research – a warning perhaps van Persie’s new employer should have absorbed.

Mark de Rond of Cambridge’s Judge Business School points out that stars often work well in a supportive network of competent performers. As he told me: “People are willing to put up with prima donnas, provided they get a return on [the stars’] performance.”

Still curious? In There Is an I in Team: What Elite Athletes and Coaches Really Know About High Performance, Mark de Rond writes that the best derive from the trade-offs between members' “likeability and competence camaraderie and rivalry.”

Why you should never poach “stars” from competitors