New study reveals what knocks a star employee off their pedestal

Every company has a few. Those employees seem to naturally soak up the limelight. They’re often the first to volunteer for extra work and the last to leave the office or clock out at the end of the workday.

“Star employees” rise to office prominence in a variety of ways, but generally speaking they achieve higher visibility than their coworkers via two main avenues: exceptional work performance and/or an especially outgoing or likable personality. 

To everyone else in the company, star employees can be both inspiring and frustrating. While some will look at favored coworkers as an example of what they would like to accomplish in the future, others will see them as roadblocks to their own success.

An interesting new study just released by Cornell University investigated how collaborations with star employees end up impacting their coworkers and peers. The research team reports a nuanced set of findings; working with a star employee can be likened to a double-edged sword. 

When a project or joint effort with a star employee goes well, the favored employee will likely garner most of the attention, acclaim, and credit. However, if that same project ends up failing or underperforming, it’s the star that will have to face most of the criticism or blame.

“We look at what happens when you collaborate with a star in terms of whose getting credit when that collaboration is successful,” says study co-author Rebecca Kehoe, associate professor of human resource studies, in a release. “What we find, and this is consistent with research on the Matthew effect and other work, is that if you collaborate with a star and that collaboration is successful, the star does get more of that credit and you benefit less than if you were working with somebody that wasn’t a star. The silver lining here though is that if you collaborate with a star and that collaboration is not successful, the star takes the heat.”

The Matthew Effect is just a fancy way of saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” First coined in the 1960s, this phenomenon was initially only applied to the scientific world. At that time, it was quite common for established scientists to make headlines and gain acclaim for scientific work that had largely already been conceived and performed by less known colleagues.

However, this human tendency dates much farther back than the 20th century. The name “Matthew Effect” is a reference to biblical verses from the new testament.

The team at Cornell examined the world of hedge fund management specifically to reach these conclusions. Before starting they theorized that if a non-star and star employee duo successfully co-managed a hedge fund, the star would benefit much more. Similarly, if that collaboration yielded less than ideal results, the star would face more backlash. After performing their investigation, the study author’s hypothesis was proven correct.

Thanks to data provided by Eurekahedge and Institutional Investor, researchers had a large set of information to test their theory. Featuring monthly information on US hedge funds between 2005-2019, as well as all career histories for managers at each one of those funds, the provided dataset encompassed 59,337 “non-star fund managers” in charge of 28,304 funds.

It’s worth noting that a non-star employee’s performance history and overall status within the company play a significant role as well. Just because someone isn’t a “star” that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily considered bad at their job. Researchers say if a non-star has achieved a reasonable amount of career success themselves, they’re less likely to be totally overshadowed by a star in a successful collaboration. Perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, successful non-stars may be able to place more blame on their star partner if things go awry. 

In other words, if a non-star employee is considered good at their job, they’ll be in a better position regardless of whether their collaboration with a star succeeds or fails.

Similarly, non-star employees who are thought of as sub-par workers stand to gain virtually no benefits at all from a successful collaboration with a star employee. In such a scenario, the entire company will attribute all of the project’s success to the star.

“They may be seen as riding the coattail of the stars,” Kehoe adds. “While low-performing employees might not get a status bump when they succeed with a star, if they’re at least in a situation where they’re learning from the star’s expertise, then that’s going to help their performance outside the collaboration, which can eventually put them in a better position down the line.”

“I think what this points to, both for low-performing employees and for managers,” she concludes, “is the importance of being very mindful of what is the gain that you’re hoping to achieve from a collaboration with a star.”

The full study can be found here, published in Personnel Psychology.