CareersPeer-Reviewed Research

Lonely At The Top

High performers sabotaged by coworkers

Every business wants the best and the brightest. Once they spot these top talents, corporations typically lavish time and money to hire, train and groom them for success. Life should be simple for the lucky hires.

But if you’ve ever watched crabs trying to climb out of a bucket, you know it’s not. The closer any one crab gets to the top, the more likely it is to evoke the spite of its fellow crabs, who will try to drag it back down.

A study coauthored by Rice Business professor Jing Zhou shows that while high performers bring substantial value to their organizations and workgroups, they also attract inordinate social attention – not all of it positive. The findings are especially important because high performers are less likely to stay with their organizations or sustain exceptional success if their social experiences at work are difficult.

And for many top performers, that’s clearly the case. A full 30 percent of top corporate employees leave their firms within one year, according to Zhou and coauthors Elizabeth M. Campbell of the University of Minnesota, Aichia Chuang of National Taiwan University, Yuntao Dong of the University of Connecticut and Hui Liao of the University of Maryland. For years, the scholars write, employers assumed that their workplace stars were either too bored or too restless to stay put. Now research shows that they leave their jobs because of how they’re treated.

To add to this body of research, Zhou and her colleagues conducted a time-lagged study of 414 hair stylists working for 120 salons in northern Taiwan. Why salons? Stylists, the researchers explain, work in open spaces where their peers can see their performance. And because salons are magnets for employee chatter, Zhou’s team could easily monitor interactions there.

What they found was a subtle and stressful power struggle. On the one hand, as high performing stylists improved their job performance, peers saw them as beneficial to their own images. Less talented workers attached themselves to rising stars, hoping the reflected light would also illuminate their prospects.

But even as the top stylists reaped attention and support from their peers, they were perceived as threats. Whenever the best performers got attention, those around them became jealous.

This finding soon led to a second discovery. The colleagues of the high performers weren’t just jealous; they were actively working to undermine the high performers at the same time they were supporting them.

The toll was great, Zhou writes. It would be one thing if high achievers knew their colleagues either admired them or hated them. But the unspoken tug-of-war between support and sabotage caused a unique strain.

In such toxic environments, the high achievers found work more stressful than their less-accomplished colleagues. This, the researchers believe, likely accounts for why so many top performers leave their jobs for other opportunities.

To a certain extent, Zhou and her team say, such stress is hardwired into the workplace. Employers value workers who function as a team. At the same time, they prize individuals whose achievements stand out from the group. With such contradictions, the particular stress that plagues high performers may be inevitable.

So what’s the lesson? True, star performers earn higher pay and receive faster promotion. But these perks come at a social cost. No wonder achievers struggle to maintain top performance levels and typically leave their firms sooner than their coworkers.

In general, employers need to closely attend to their employees’ wellbeing, taking into account the unique social stresses that affect high performers. Ideally, managers can craft environments in which the top achievers – and their more average associates – all feel welcome.

According to Zhou and her colleagues, such harmony isn’t just about keeping a few divas happy. Undermining and jealousy, their findings show, actively drive off top performers. It’s only natural for crabs to claw their fellow crabs back into the heap. So it’s up to managers to protect their best performers – or end up with a bucketful of motionless crustaceans.

Jing Zhou is the Houston Endowment Professor of Management, and Director for Asian Management Research and Education at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more please see: Campbell, E.M., Liao, H, Chuang, A., Zhou, J., & Dong, Y. (2017). Hot shots and cool reception? An expanded view of social consequences for high performers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(5), 845-866