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Does Top Talent Help or Hurt Collaboration?

April 01, 2015

Does Top Talent Help or Hurt Collaboration?

It depends. According to an INSEAD research study, the greater the interdependencies among the people collaborating, the more you need to limit how much top talent is involved. It turns out that top talent folks don’t support one another, nor do they coordinate their actions, all that well. 

Since coordination and support are vital parts to successful collaboration, it’s time to take a harder look at the people.

To get high performance from team collaboration, we need stars who are also team players.

Top Talent Are Difficult

Face it. Those who have earned the title"top talent" are confident, smart, driven, persistent, creative, and demanding. They grasp the root of most problems in the blink of an eye. They’ve got minds of their own, coupled with extremely high standards to which they hold themselves and everyone else.

They’re risk takers who are brave and willing to challenge sacred cows / the status quo (rules were made to be broken after all) — whereas your average employee will acquiesce. They’re mavericks who, delight in coming up with new and unique ways to solve problems, or create them if they’re bored.

They can be arrogant, opinionated, and abrupt (which can feel disrespectful or contemptuous) because stars don’t tolerate incompetence (recall their high standards). They can also be ingenious, witty, charming, delightful, energizing, mischievous, and fun to be with.

One minute you love ‘em, the next minute you want to strangle them.

To keep top talent in your company, you must be willing to embrace, and nurture, their sterling qualities, and manage their negative ones. Because, without them your organization will wither away. (What was that saying that mama always used to say, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?”)


Your average star’s competition is herself. She’s far more interested in growing her expertise, earning more responsibility, and outperforming herself than she is in beating someone else. 

But she also seeks recognition. Recognition comes in many forms other than money, not the least of which is being the center of attention or taking control. That isn’t necessarily bad. But when you have too many stars on a team, the dynamic shifts because now your stars are competing for the spotlight, and control of their team and its recognition. This is where performance can head south, and fast. What can you do?

As the leader of your organization, you could shift some of the stars off onto other collaborations. But sometimes you don’t have that luxury — especially in smaller firms. Here’s what I recommend:

Have a compelling vision — what’s the end game? 

Stars are motivated to produce something stupendous. When you have a vision, and paint a picture so they can see the end game, you’re halfway there. The other half is making sure the vision benefits them. When it fulfills or achieves a need, want, or desire they have, you’ve got a home run.

Be very, very clear about who is leading

The leader may be one of your stars. Or...maybe not. Regardless, make sure everyone knows who’s leading the collaboration and support them 100%. Without that clarity, your stars will compete for control and dominance. Nip it in the bud at the start.

Set clear ground rules and enforce them

Here’s your opportunity to set behavioral guidelines, along with the usual processes and procedures. Discuss your team's core values that no one may violate, e.g. help whenever you’re asked, offer to help when you see someone struggling, no sarcasm, etc.

Whenever a team member violates the values, each team member is responsible for enforcing the ground rules, politely. That includes reminding the leader if need be. If you don’t stop people and discuss the issue immediately, the rules get ignored and you set the stage for unnecessary conflict.

Define roles and responsibilities

As the leader, you want to define what each member’s role will be, and their responsibility. Consider giving your stars the riskier responsibilities for which their talents are well-suited. They thrive on challenges. And bigger responsibilities will keep them from being bored and out of mischief.

Clarify how decisions will be made

Make it clear who makes what decisions and how those decisions will be arrived at. This goes with roles and responsibilities, but takes it a step further because some people automatically assume that collaboration means a democracy. It rarely is. Don’t shy away from this, or your stars will find ways to compete for control, sending performance into the toilet.

Manage any “whack-a-mole” sessions with care

Every collaboration will have moments where brainstorming or collective problem-solving needs to happen. As soon as someone opens their mouth with an idea that hasn’t been fully thought out, your stars will start ripping it to shreds. For them, this is fun. It’s a way to exercise their analytical muscles. It’s like playing whack-a-mole with ideas.

Unfortunately, some of your other team members may feel like the moles being whacked. Be sure to set the ground rules for brainstorming and problem-solving ahead of time. Use those opportunities to help your stars reframe their statements to be more helpful, instead of incite-ful and for the others not to take their comments personally.


This list of strategies is by no means complete. But even if you adopted just a few of them, you'll help transform your top talent into better collaborators and more productive team players. What lessons have you've learned and strategies that you've used that work well with your stars? Please share your thoughts below.