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Top Performers Risk Being Undermined By Peers, Studies Show

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James dunks during the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., last month. Studies show that star performers are more likely to be undermined by their peers.
Marcio Jose Sanchez

If you're one of those rare individuals defined as a "top performer" in your field, you might do well to watch your back. That's according to new research highlighted in Scientific American.

Coworkers of top performers – think Bill Gates or LeBron James, researchers say – pay a "social penalty" for their excellence. Colleagues are more likely to try to damage the reputations of stars and otherwise undermine their efforts.

Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School, writes in Scientific American of research done by Elizabeth Campbell of the University of Minnesota and co-authors that looked at 350 hair stylists working in 105 salons in Taiwan.

It turns out that "peers were more likely to belittle, insult, and damage the reputation of high rather than low performers."

In the same University of Minnesota-led study, 284 U.S. business majors were examined in a controlled experiment in which they were randomly assigned to one of three groups — one team worked virtually, while two other teams were designed either to be more cooperative or more competitive.

"Groups completed various tasks that tested their critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. One member of each team (actually a computerized script rather than a real participant) performed either similarly to his peers or much higher," Gino writes.

"The results showed that star performers triggered different reactions from their peers depending on the resources available to the team. If resources were limited, peers felt threatened by and competitive toward high performers and thus undermined them. If resources were shared, peers benefited from working with a star and thus socially supported the high performer," according to Gino.

Gino and Lamar Pierce of Olin Business School conducted somewhat similar research that delved into the actions of vehicle emissions inspectors. Sometimes those inspectors would let drivers slide whose automobiles should have failed, "a behavior that is both unethical and illegal, but that inspectors may view as a form of helping," according to Gino.

She writes:

" ... we found that for a significant number of inspectors, fraud levels were much higher in support of customers with more affordable vehicles. In follow-up laboratory experiments, we examined the psychological drivers of this behavior and found that people were more willing to illicitly help peers who drove standard rather than luxury cars and that empathy and envy, respectively, explained this effect."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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