Addressing a superstar culture

Do you have one or two employees who seem to work on all the critical projects you have going on? Your execs and stakeholders stress about them leaving, they always pick up the rewards and recognition and they have their fingers in every pie. In the midst of a million projects these people are your superstars smashing through the work and making you look good. Sound familiar? First things first you need to be aware of the impact this will have on your broader organisation (resentment, demotivation, perceived lack of opportunities, lack of collaboration) and also assess the impact on your superstars (burn out, loss of work life balance, perception that other team members aren’t pulling their weight). You also have to be honest with yourself as a leader – am I seeing an issue and not acting because it might make my life harder?

Assessing the cause

Why have you got to the point where a small number of individuals handle such a large volume of work? From my experience there are two factors in play

  1. The team lacks capability and skills meaning the more highly skilled individuals take on extra work and with it don the superstar cape.
  2. Your highly talented individuals lack softer skills such as collaboration, team building, communication and create their own superstar status because they like to work alone or believe it will make them indispensable.

Taking action

If you suspect point 1 is driving the behaviour you need to act fast. If your team lacks the skills required you are massively at risk that your superstar(s) will move on (probably due to burn out) leaving you exposed. You will need to look at restructure options which will require consultation with HR and will be impacted by budget availability (restructures can be expensive) and potential IR risk. My advice is act fast – nothing will destroy morale like fear of job cuts, treat your staff with honesty and respect, consult with HR and external specialists to manage risk. You also want to have new roles approved, job descriptions ready to go and potential candidates in mind to minimise risk.

If point 2 is driving the superstar culture the good news is you already have a highly skilled team so the impact of losing a superstar is mitigated. The bad news is your other staff members aren’t getting the opportunities they crave and deserve. Again my advice would be to act fast and the best place to start is regular 1-1 meetings with you superstar(s). Some probing questions to gauge how they feel about their workload and what opportunities they see to make the team more efficient will help tease out the underlying issues. If you have superstars you are also likely to have mistakes as too much is being done by too few so conducting regular retrospectives when things go wrong will help to identify that work is not evenly distributed and make it easier to achieve consensus that change is needed.

You can also consider organisational changes to force a more even distribution of responsibilities but you risk disenfranchising your superstar(s) who may have the best intentions at heart. Another option may be to identify development opportunities for superstar(s). For example could you move them into a more strategic role that will enable operational work to be shared across the team? It goes without saying that this should only be considered if the individual has the necessary skills and  is motivated to succeed in this role.

Other factors

Review your rewards and recognition approach and ensure you are rewarding the right behaviour. A superstar may jump into a disaster and work around the clock to fix it, however if the disaster was avoidable you are rewarding the wrong behaviour. Look long and hard across your team and identify the behaviours most closely aligned to your organisational values. Focus rewards on team members who collaborate and share information and those who innovate to solve problems.

Also look at peer review as to drive behaviour change. Let your team provide anonymous feedback on each other to identify superstars who deliver but achieve success without being good team players. I’m a strong believer that 360 degree feedback and peer review should be a formal part of the performance review process.


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