There’s more than one way to be an office rock star. A new Rutgers-led study published in the Journal of Management suggests there are five different kinds of workplace star performers, ranging from the unsung to the unforgettable. These workers create value for their employer in different ways, and they enjoy varying levels of job security.
“Most of the prior research on stars focuses only on employees whose work is seen outside the organization,” said Rebecca Kehoe, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “That ignores workers who are excelling in the shadows or employed in low-profile fields. It also assumes that all-stars either maintain their peak performance indefinitely or disappear from the workforce once their heyday is over.”
Kehoe teamed up with Rutgers doctorate student Scott Bentley, now an assistant professor at Binghamton University, and the late professor David Lepak of the University of Massachusetts Amherst to paint a fine-grained picture of star performers. They propose a new classification system for all future management research on the subject:
- Universal stars have both exceptional task performance and broad external status, like a world-famous athlete or a star scientist with a long record of drug patents. Universal stars gain preferential access to knowledge, resources and collaborations. They bring in new clients and investors, and they attract new talent to the organization’s workforce.
- Performance stars have exceptional task performance, with little or no external recognition. Some performance stars have inward-facing roles in their organization, like a non-litigator in a high-powered law firm. Or they work in an industry that is inherently less visible.
- Affiliation-based stars achieved their status through close personal connections, such as a Hollywood actor who inherited fame from a celebrity parent. They lack exceptional task performance, but their name recognition opens doors.
- Former universal stars no longer have exceptional task performance due to age or other factors, but they still enjoy status. They know how to get things done, making them especially good mentors to rising stars and other employees.
- Networking stars achieved status by developing and managing a professional network, rather than inheriting their status or earning it through high performance. They can help with access to external resources, perhaps by breaking into new industries or markets.
“Star performer status can be a double-edged sword for employers,” Kehoe said. “While status helps to improve the visibility and reputation of organizations, it also expands the external job opportunities and bargaining power enjoyed by individuals.”
Universal stars enjoy the greatest job security and bargaining power because of the unique value they bring to their organization and the fact that their work is widely recognized externally.
Affiliation-based stars, former universal stars and networking stars also enjoy a high degree of job security because of their complex web of interpersonal relationships. Their contributions might not be unique, but the boss cannot untangle the web to find out.
Performance stars hold the weakest position of all, despite their good work. The extent of their contributions is less ambiguous, and they lack the external status to give them real bargaining power and mobility options. Feeling threatened may cause their performance to slip.
“As employees, we may be underestimating the value of status and interpersonal relationships in achieving our career goals,” Bentley said. “Our contributions at work depend not only on what we know and can accomplish ourselves, but also on who we know and what kinds of resources we can bring into an organization.”
Stars relying more narrowly on their own individual performance may need to reinvent themselves if their area of excellence becomes obsolete due to artificial intelligence, consolidation, outsourcing or some other factor, Bentley noted.
Kehoe and Bentley suggest future research is needed to examine how the individual qualities of star performers affect their ability to create value in the workplace. For instance, an employee with broad external status may be unpopular within the organization. That is an important consideration in hiring and management.