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Are you guilty of star-stuffing your team?

Laura Johnson

Laura Johnson asks if your A list team could be down your downfall

Your team are driving you crazy and you just can't put your finger on what is wrong. On paper you look like a dream team – a collection of highly qualified and talented individuals that you meticulously selected for their impeccable academic accolades and professional achievements. You’ve created a team bursting at the seams with star performers and that’s the problem. Research tells us your expertly executed A-list recruitment plan could actually be your team’s downfall.

“Organisations that attempt to establish the perfect team by hiring a portfolio of stars risk putting two roosters in the same henhouse, which evidence suggests can erode the individual performance of team members,” warns strategy lecturer, Dr Paolo Aversa. The source of his claim? Studying a back catalogue of 29 years of Formula 1 races with his research colleagues at Cass Business School, part of City University London. The team of experts analysed the drivers in every race between 1981 and 2010 and found having two top drivers competing in the same team was a recipe for disaster – a car crash if you like. Mercedes team-‘mates’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg conveniently added further weight to his conclusions when they viciously collided at the Belgian Grand Prix this August, bringing to the world’s attention how competing egos can jeopardise podium rankings. 

Dr Aversa believes their findings are relevant beyond the Formula 1 racetrack, shedding light on why other teams of star performers often fail to live up to expectations. He gives two main reasons for this: the emergence of team conflict as the star performers compete for the same results and the inefficient use of resources. Let's look at each in turn.

First up, internal conflict. Now competition and a little intra-team rivalry aren’t categorically bad team traits, it’s how we deal with them as managers that often causes the problem. Faced with clashing team talent, it’s typical to take one of two options: favouring one star above the others or refusing to side with any of the warring egos. Dr Aversa relates this to the Formula 1 world to explain why neither option commonly leads to a positive outcome.

“The first option tends to demotivate both drivers, as the favoured driver tends to relax his rivalry, and the second loses his ambitions as he acknowledges that he will not be allowed to overtake his colleague,” says Dr Aversa. The second response he argues promotes, rather than diffuses, internal conflict. “The resulting antagonism often leads to the failing of any intra-team collaboration, and eventually triggers aggressive duels that often end with one or both cars crashing. This happened in the recent crash between Hamilton and Rosberg in Belgium.”

Conflicting egos is perhaps the most obvious peril of a star-stuffed team but just as damaging to performance is the impact on the distribution of team resources. The natural response when you’re managing a team of equally excellent performers is to split the available resources equally between them. But this approach, although fair, usually doesn’t maximise the team’s overall performance. Furthermore, the quest to show impartiality can be a slow and laborious process that takes unnecessary managerial time, energy and patience to coordinate.

But before you set about weighing up which of your superstars to issue with their P45, Dr Aversa has some words of wisdom on how to tackle a glut of talent. “When teams employ two star individuals, they have to make their strategy clear from day one,” suggests Dr Aversa. He reverts to Formula 1 to illustrate his point. “The expectations are well defined for both drivers, and everybody knows the right thing to do in each situation. Otherwise, matters can get confused, creating the type of problems we saw when Hamilton and Rosberg crashed in the Grand Prix at Spa.”

But there is one question that remains unanswered for me - how many stars are too many for a team? All I can see is that it’s a delicate balance. Now I’m not a Formula 1 buff so I’ll revert to Hollywood and specifically the Ocean’s Eleven franchise to explain my point. The first movie in the trilogy is on my list of all time favourites, boasting seven veritable A-list stars. The sequel added Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bruce Willis to the credits and the results were underwhelming for me (and the public at large). With the third and final instalment they reigned in the star quota to eight but this still felt a bit greedy and the box office takings reflected my disappointment with the results. 

The challenge is therefore finding the right balance of cohesive talent that works for your team. And remember, never underestimate the value of great wingmen. Every Batman needs his Robin.


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