Is it Good to Have the Best Brains in Your Team?

In the business world, there are a slew of sporting analogies that have entered the management lexicon.  One is that you want the best players on your team in order to win.  The logic behind it is an obvious one.  After all, who wouldn’t want the most talented people on their team?

This is especially so in the knowledge economy, where the very success of an organisation tends to rest upon the talent it can throw at a particular problem.  This desire for talent has sat behind the recent drive towards more open innovation, whereby the talent pool is a limitless one.

Indeed, this latent desire to have all of the smartest people on your team has sat behind the rather disastrous implementation of things, such as stack ranking in a bid to better ’manage’ their talent.

A recent study, however, suggests that simply looking out for the smartest people may not actually be much use.  The paper, which was published in the American Economic Journal, looks at the impact having superstars in a team has on the less stellar members of that team.  Do they, for instance, help and support their colleagues to greater heights?  Or does their presence tend to suppress the talents of those around them?  It would seem that the latter is more likely.

This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to perform better,” says lead researcher Scott Imberman.

Are smart colleagues a good influence?

The focus of the research was an environment whereby talent is explicitly judged - a school.  Schools are a fertile testing ground because many have implemented schemes to promote and support gifted and talented pupils.

Of particular interest were the 14,000 or so students who had just about squeezed into the gifted and talented program.  They weren’t super talented themselves, but would the presence of super smart peers improve their performance?

Unfortunately, the results suggest that this peer influence did not really occur.  It transpired that the borderline entrants into the group didn’t improve their grades any more than their peers who had not qualified for the group whatsoever.  Indeed, this lack of improvement was shown across each of the five subjects studied for the research.

So it would appear that having super smart people in the group did little to raise the performance of the more average members.  Suffice to say, a classroom environment tends to be quite competitive, and there isn’t really any expectation or requirement for students to coach one another, which may be more likely to occur in the workplace.

A second study however suggests that this may not occur in the workplace either.  It revealed that powerful individuals (and smart people are usually that), often look down on their less powerful colleagues, to the extent that they almost dehumanise them.

All of which is rather disheartening.  I’d love to hear your own experiences in the workplace.  Did the smartest people in your organisation help and support others?  Was there a coaching culture?

Let me know in the comments below.

Image: Fact o Fun




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