The bane of brilliance
Via The Economist : Some high-performing employees suffer for their success
WHO wouldn’t want to be a star employee? The salary is nice, as is the chance to climb to the top and tell others what to do. The downside is that your co-workers may hate you. The notion that jealous managers bully high-performing underlings, whom they see as a threat to the social order, has been well researched. But management theorists now say it is not only small-minded bosses that star workers need to overcome; it is also their colleagues.
A study by Theresa Glomb of the University of Minnesota and Eugene Kim of the Georgia Institute of Technology suggests that workers have a tendency towards what Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, defined as “upward social comparisons”. They overestimate their ability and judge their standing in the office against those with more talent. Falling short leaves average Joes envious and spiteful. Tall poppies, says Ms Glomb, are chopped down in a variety of ways, including ostracism at social events and humiliation before the boss.
All this rarely happens in industries such as the technology business, where outperformance is, by and large, admired by all. It is typically found in stagnant environments, says Sue Filmer of Mercer, a human resources (HR) consultancy: the more dynamic the business, the less the scope for peers to sit and stew. An HR manager at a property firm, employing around 400 staff, says that when he implemented a talent-management programme, those excluded immediately came to tell him why the chosen ones were undeserving. In small organisations, too, there can be little chance of a sideways move to escape the rut. Ivor Adair, an employment lawyer at Slater + Gordon, a law practice, says such cases are widespread. In one recent instance he dealt with, a jealous worker at a professional-services firm was cited for leaning over a desk and screaming, hairdryer-style, into a talented colleague’s face.
High performers have their lives made difficult in other ways, too. A study by Gráinne Fitzsimons of Duke University showed that the most talented employees tend to have extra work dumped on them—not only the high-powered tasks they might relish, but also mundane chores, such as organising meetings.
In some cases, the stars have themselves to blame. It can be in the nature of successful people to display a level of ambition and self-absorption that can get up colleagues’ noses. And because high-flyers tend to have better cognitive skills, they could simply be more adept at spotting slights that stupider employees would overlook. If you find e-mails terse or colleagues offhand, in other words, it means you’re a high performer.
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