Why a cooperative work culture can be bad for star performers

Employee of the Month burstBy Alex Fradera

Wouldn’t it be nice to work in an environment focused on cooperation and solidarity, one that put the needs of the many above those of the few? Sounds great … but collectivism has some surprising downsides, especially if you’re a star performer. New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology looks at workplace reactions to high performers and their polarising effect on those around them, and shows that in more cooperative climates, hotshots are actually more likely to get a raw deal.

Elizabeth Campbell and her colleagues surveyed 350 hair stylists, mainly women, working within a chain of Taiwanese salons. The researchers were interested in how the most successful stylists were treated by their peers: they identified hotshots by asking managers for performance ratings, and then they surveyed all the staff to find out the benefits and threats they saw in each other, and how much criticism and support they received. They also asked stylists about their salon’s working climate by asking them how much they agreed with statements like “there is a high level of cooperation between stylists”.

You can consider a fellow hotshot a benefit: an inspiration, a source of advice and expertise, and a way to attract prestige. Or you can see them as a threat; they’re likely to take the best duties and customers, and garner the greatest favour from leadership.

The researchers found that hotshots experienced more negative treatment in the form of belittling and criticism when they were surrounded by co-workers who felt threatened. In contrast, hotshots received more help and support if their colleagues saw them as a benefit. The typical high performer had a mixed bag: compared to the typical stylist, they were criticised more, but also received more support.

But that support was lacking within salons with more cooperative climates. This might seem puzzling until you understand a cooperative climate isn’t about sweetness and biscuits, but rather a culture where group solidarity is paramount. Under these conditions, a stand-out performer is simply a nail that needs to be hammered down, like the 1940s factories whose unionised workers gave a hard time to “rate-busters” whose performance made the rest look bad.

To investigate this systematically, the researchers ran an experiment with 284 US undergraduates, divided into collaborative teams who were told in an introduction either to approach their problem-solving tasks with a highly cooperative focus (e.g. interaction was described as a “collaborative discussion”, and rewards were split equally) or a with a more competitive focus (interaction would be “spirited debate”, and there were more individualised rewards, but still collaborating toward a common goal). Participants were then isolated in separate cubicles and after each round of problem-solving, they received information about the performance of each team-member and had the chance to exchange messages with each other (actually the information and messages were made up by the researchers, but the participants didn’t know this).

After a few rounds, participants were asked how they felt about some of the other specific team members, including those made to seem like hotshots. Participants who perceived a star performer as a threat tended to join in with backbiting when receiving bitchy chat-messages about the hotshot from another member, but crucially this only happened in the cooperative condition. In the low-cooperative one, there was no heightened denigration of hotshots. So whereas the earlier survey evidence suggested that helping of strong performers was impaired by a more cooperative culture, this experiment showed a cooperative culture was associated with more belittling of strong performers.

It’s notoriously hard for organisations to hang on to high performers who are often courted by rival organisations with better financial packages or positions. But money can’t buy working with people who really know, value and respect you. So overly solidarity-focused organisations – the kind that may resent their outstanding performers – risk eroding their edge in holding onto their talent. Maybe that’s just fine for some of the rank and file, but not for those who want their organisations to excel.

Hot Shots and Cool Reception? An Expanded View of Social Consequences for High Performers

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest