Can A Team Have Too Much Talent?

Jane Williams, Editor, Knowledge Arabia, recently wrote an article entitled, “Can A Team Have Too Much Talent?”  That article was based on the following research paper: Swaab, R. I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E. M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A. D. “The too-much-talent effect: Team interdependence determines when more talent is too much versus not enough.”

The abstract of their paper states:

“Five studies examined the relationship between talent and team performance. Two survey studies found that people believe there is a linear and nearly monotonic relationship between talent and performance: participants expected that more talent increases performance and that this relationship would never turn negative. However, building off research on status conflicts, we predicted that talent facilitates performance… but only up to a point, after which the benefits of more talent will decrease and eventually turn negative as intra-team coordination suffers. We also predicted that the level of task interdependence would be a key determinant of when more talent would be detrimental versus beneficial. Three archival studies revealed that the too-much-talent effect only emerged when in tasks where team members were interdependent  (football and basketball) but not independent (baseball). Our basketball analysis established the mediating role of team coordination. When teams need to come together, more talent can tear them apart.” To download a PDF of the study click here.

Most teams in non-sports organizations require high degrees of interdependence, so that’s my focus for this post. As the authors acknowledge, we’re dealing with the age-old dilemma of competition for individual status versus cooperating in service of team success. The authors of the study firmly establish that too much internal competition for dominance and status will undermine team performance. But they don’t address the fact that this behavior is not remotely confined to high talent individuals. I’m sure every reader of this post has witnessed the detrimental effect of mediocre performers striving for status by undermining colleagues and associates. Sadly, this behavior is commonplace.

So I think the most important finding from their research is this: the desire and ability to work with others in service of team success is a key factor in team performance, no matter the level of individual talent. It’s not the intensity of the talent, it’s the desire and ability to value team success over individual status.

I’d like to bring into this conversation a book by Warren Bennis: “Organizing Genius, The Secrets of Creative Collaboration”. In this book Bennis studied seven non-sports groups that achieved extraordinary results. He calls them “Great Groups”. Each of these seven groups was a team comprised of greatly gifted people who managed to cooperate and collaborate rather than to compete for status. So we know it can be done. Here are a few quotations from Bennis:

Leaders of Great Groups are recruiters who have a “keen eye for talent”.
“Recruiting the right genius for the job is the first step in building many great collaborations.”
“Such recruiters look for two things: excellence and the ability to work with others.”

In today’s world, interdependence is not optional. If you want a high performance team, each team member must have more than the ability to perform individual tasks with excellence. The ability to collaborate synergistically should not be in the “nice to have” category. It should be a ticket to admission. As Bennis has established, you can have high talent and a great ability to work with others. Let’s find more people like that.

Thanks to Chantel Taylor for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I value your thoughts on this topic.

Larry Sternberg

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