WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.

Star Employees – Rebecca Kehoe

March 01, 2021 Cornell ILR School Season 1 Episode 17
WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.
Star Employees – Rebecca Kehoe
Show Notes Transcript

Rebecca Kehoe, CALS ’05, M.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’10, associate professor of human resources studies at the ILR School, and ILR Dean Alex Colvin discuss her research around “star” employees and their effects on co-workers and employers.  

 Learn more about Kehoe’s most recent study regarding star employees:

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Julie Greco  0:01  
Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet, and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment." Dean Alex Colvin speaks with ILR's own, Rebecca Kehoe, associate professor of human resource studies.

Alex Colvin  0:27  
It's a pleasure today to welcome to the podcast, professor Rebecca Kehoe, one of our faculty members in human resource studies. Welcome Rebecca.

Rebecca Kehoe  0:37  
Thanks Alex.

Alex Colvin  0:38  
So you've researched many areas but you've done some very interesting work in recent years around the management of star employees, something that we think is going to be great for organizations. We all want stars, we like stars, but how do we actually think about that when we're managing them? What are star performers and what sets them apart from other employees.

Rebecca Kehoe  1:04  
So that's a good question. So really stars are your exceptional contributors they're kind of the best of the best employees in your organization. Sometimes when we study stars we actually study employees at the industry level so we compare how employees fare and their performance not just relative to others in the organization but also to others in the industry. You can imagine superstars who are sort of known for their work across organizations, they're really highly recruited there really sought after by you know organizations and admired by their peers and so that it's their performance that sets them apart.

Alex Colvin  1:38  
So you could compare, so you're saying you can compare them to other people in this workplace but maybe even more broadly, so that you think across the industry you could have a whole bunch of stars in your organization.

Rebecca Kehoe  1:50  
Yeah, that's right. So, admittedly, it's easier to compare across organizations in those roles that are more visible. And this can actually work to the advantage of organizations when they have star employees who are in these roles that they can keep less visible to external firms because they're not necessarily as likely to be poached. On the flip side, they're not necessarily likely to create the reputation the visibility for the organization that they might otherwise create if everyone in the industry could kind of see the amazing work that they're doing. 

Alex Colvin  2:23  
So this is a little different from that example we often think of sports players who were stars on their team. There every other team knows that they're stars because you can see their performance, read about it online or the newspaper on TV. But for most organizations that's not the case right you don't actually get to see what other companies employees are doing performance wise.

Rebecca Kehoe  2:45  
Yes i think i think this varies across industries, it varies across organizations and even different roles within an organization you can imagine. So, you know, there are there are two sides to that visibility. On one hand you may want as an organization you may want to sort of shield and hide your stars but on the other hand, one way that stars create value beyond their productivity is through their visibility. So while yes they may be more likely to be recruited by external employers stars visibility can also help an organization to create legitimacy in new areas, it can help organizations to attract clients. This is particularly the case in professional service firms where employees are really having that direct interface with clients. If you have a star that clients, kind of know and trust, that's going to help you as an organization. We also find that other employees, top talent, they want to work with stars and so for organizations employing stars who are more visible. This can be a great recruiting tool, and we actually find that some employees, that some top talent, are willing to forego a higher salary for the opportunity to work with another star.

Alex Colvin  3:53  
That's really interesting, because you think of stars as obviously performing well themselves so that you get the benefit of that, but you're suggesting then  that the research says that other employees can actually perform better when they're working with the stars. Is that what you're finding?

Rebecca Kehoe  4:11  
Sometimes. So this is actually an extremely loaded question that I backed myself into here. But I'm, this is, this is actually exactly what I study so yes stars can be great in terms of improving the productivity of their colleagues, you can imagine stars bring sort of their expertise. their tried and true strategies for performing well. They also tend to have a lot of influence in their organizations because other employees know that they've done well and so they are great as role models and mentors, but we also have to recognize some of the downsides of working alongside stars. So, for employees working alongside stars sure you may get access to that knowledge to that mentoring. Stars also sometimes hog resources. Stars sometimes sort of push out opportunities for other employees to contribute because they're, they may have an interest in sort of preserving their own status in the organization. And the other piece of it is while stars have this great visibility and can attract positive attention to their collaboration so their projects. They also tend to get most of the credit when those collaborations are successful so there's pluses and minuses for sure.

Alex Colvin  5:20  
It might be kind of depressing if I'm working with a star on a project and they're doing amazing and getting all the credit and I might not really getting much of the credit. Maybe it's maybe it's hard to live up to the performance of the star if you're if you're working with them. 

Rebecca Kehoe  5:34  
I think that's that's definitely a possibility. It does actually reminds me of a recent study that I've been working on as a colleague that we actually looked at what happens when you collaborate with a star in terms of who's getting credit when that collaboration is successful. So, what we find is, and this is consistent with with other work there's a long history of something known as a Matthew effect, you're probably familiar with Alex where it's sort of from an academic sense that the rich get richer but you know you start off you're successful and you get sort of credit and status from that success. And then that initial early performance puts you in a position to get better resources and better opportunities and more credit as you go forward and so this just sort of the self perpetuating cycle. We found in this research is, it is the case that if you collaborate with a star, and that collaboration is successful, the star does get more of that credit and you benefit less than if you were working with somebody that wasn't a star. The silver lining here though is if you collaborate with a star and that collaboration is not successful, the star takes the heat. So, there is also this external assumption that while the star, maybe probably had the influence control the decision making and so maybe it was the stars fault that, that didn't work out so well. So, that's interesting.

Alex Colvin  6:53  
So, this suggests that there's a lot of complex effects from stars and you probably have to be careful how you manage them if you're going to maximize the benefit. What is the research suggests about what organizations could do to to get the most value from stars and bring the most value to the organization from their performance? 

Rebecca Kehoe  7:14  
Yeah, so this this actually brings me back to some of my earlier work on stars that was focusing on what happens from the organization's perspective. So it's just been more recently I've been thinking about the implications for other employees, but for organizations, what we find is one of the biggest risks actually for organizations employing stars, isn't that stars are getting poached, that is a risk, but a bigger risk is that organizations find themselves falling into this trap, where they you know they put a lot of effort and resources behind recruiting a star and then, in order to justify that investment they end up throwing even more resources at making that star successful allowing that star to shine within the organization. Which makes sense to some extent you want to you want to get the most out of that investment. The problem is when this coincides with relatively less investment in other initiatives within the organization and other employees and so what we see organizations doing is sort of centering all their focus their resources and their strategic focus on the star investing less in other employees, they essentially end up hollowing themselves out. This puts them in a really vulnerable situation so what we find is when an organization becomes overly dependent on a star, if that star leaves, everything kind of crumbles apart. So, in terms of implications, what should organizations do, one important thing is to sort of maintain balance. Of course you want as an organization of course you want to get the most out of that investment in the star but that needs to be balanced with continuing to develop other employees and so I think this is where putting structures in place that align sort of the expected the role expectations for stars, the incentive structures to require that a star is not just sort of that lone wolf, doing what they need to to be successful for themselves, but also they're, they're mentoring others they're sharing knowledge with others along the way. So I think it's okay to focus a lot of resources on what the star is working on, but make sure they're bringing other employees along with them, which doesn't necessarily happen by chance, one other piece is realizing that stars aren't islands. So I say this because we talk a lot about how to manage stars to minimize their, you know, their negative effects but stars also need support. And so I think if we can think about providing support to stars in the same framework under which we think about making sure stars are benefiting others. This can be a mutual gain, right? So we can, we can make stars support others by sharing their knowledge by mentoring by apprentice type programs, while also having those other employees who are benefiting providing the support for stars to be successful as well.

Alex Colvin  9:56  
That's an interesting point that it's, it's not just the star who's benefiting from the attention but if the organization is doing it well, it's the other employees working, working with a star who can benefit from it as well. But I'm seeing you've got a recent study that suggests that all employees are not affected by their star colleagues, the same way though. What did you find that research?

Rebecca Kehoe  10:19  
This is a study that I mentioned, looking at what happens when you collaborate with a star, and so another layer to those findings that I didn't mention before, is it turns out that employees who have their own sort of their own status signals their own record of success their own indicators of being sort of a quality or attractive employee, they're the ones who benefit the most from working with stars. So it's almost like the people who need to benefit from a star least are the ones who actually benefit the most. And our thinking there is that to the extent that you sort of have proven yourself as an employee even if you're not a star if you're a strong performer, then others are less likely to sort of brush you off when they look at your collaboration with a star. And in fact, you may sort of benefit from the positive attention the star brings to the collaboration, and then if you're actually getting some credit for that. It can end up being a net positive effect where others who are less successful of their own accord are less likely to benefit.

Alex Colvin  11:24  
This sounds like it creates a tough problem for managers because you're gonna have the stars who performing well and so obviously get a lot of attention and then you have other strong performers and they'll work well with the stars and do well they probably don't need as much support and help, but it sounds like there are the employees who aren't in that situation are probably the ones who are going to need the most attention help from from management. 

Rebecca Kehoe  11:51  
Yeah, I think this actually points to what I see is another important consideration that comes out of out of this research. And so one other finding related to this is that low performers, so, people who don't do well on their own, but they collaborate with a star and have a successful collaboration with the star, they actually end up worse off. You know, our theory is they're sort of seen as riding the coattails of the star just is worse than not even collaborating and being successful in the first place. But I think what this points to is for both employees and for managers, the importance of being really mindful of what is the gain that you're hoping to achieve. So while these employees these say low performing or lower performing employees might not get that status bump, they might not get credit for that collaborative success when they succeed with a star, if we're setting up a situation where they're at least benefiting from the mentoring, from the role modeling, from the access to the stars expertise, well, maybe that's going to help their performance outside of that collaboration and eventually they're going to be in a better position anyway. And so I think this really points to the richness, and we think about in the way we think about all the different ways that stars can create value in organizations, if they're managed effectively but also if the people around them are managed effectively.

Alex Colvin  13:08  
It must be tricky to think about too if you're the employee who isn't yet a star, and you're trying to do better, thinking about, you know, is it your best strategy to work with the star or is it better to keep separate from this from the star. How do you think about that, if you're advising employees who are in that situation?

Rebecca Kehoe  13:28  
Yeah, so I think what it really comes down to is the first question I would ask in in advising in that situation is what what is it that you're trying to get? What do you most need? Do you want to benefit from the stars expertise? Do you want to benefit from seeing the stars you know work behaviors what makes them successful? Do you want to benefit from the visibility of working with a star, or is it really important that you get credit for this particular project? If it's that last thing, then I think, you know, choosing to work with a star is probably the riskiest bet. But if you're looking for some of those other benefits then, particularly if you, like I said, if you've had your own performance independently from the star, then I think working with a star can be productive.

Alex Colvin  14:12  
Interesting. Now, changing gears a little bit, we are in the era of COVID, where COVID has affected pretty much everything in the world of work, even this podcast you and I are each at home remotely connecting together, we're not in the studio during the podcast. COVID has brought these huge changes in how and where we do our work, we do it much more remotely. We are in virtual teams instead of in person, and collaboration looks really different than it did before the pandemic. Do you any thoughts about what the implications of these changes are for what we know about stars and their influence at work, is this going to change how we think about managing the stars.

Rebecca Kehoe  14:55  
I do I actually think that this period with, you know, with so many people working remotely, and, you know, in talking to organizations, it seems like, even when people can return to work, there are widespread plans of maybe scaling back on real estate and leave it keeping some people working at home. I think that this situation coincides with our recent observations and research that we need to think differently and more more carefully about how we're defining stars how we're thinking about stars, and how we expect stars to create value in organizations. So I think traditionally within organizations stars have been given a really large amount of leeway in how they behave at work, how they interact with their colleagues,  and a lot of this is because, as I said before organizations are investing in them then organizations become overdependent and stars end up with a lot of leverage. So you end up with some stars who are you know great role models they're sharing knowledge and they're essentially what we would love to see with stars and what I think we'll hope to see with stars moving forward. We've also ended up with another subset that we've been researching stars have been identified as lone wolves. These are sort of those individual contributors who are extremely productive on their own, but they're not really looking to share knowledge, they're not really looking to support others. And I think this is a subset of stars that's going to be less valued in organizations moving forward. So, in talking to organizations in the last couple of months, I've heard about organizations are thinking differently about the way they're evaluating employees, the way they're thinking about performance. So they're yes they're still of course worried about task performance and employees getting their jobs done, but there's this added element of asking, How are these employees, sort of contributing to the social good of the organization? How are they supporting their colleagues in their work? So to the extent that we see this remote collaboration happening more and more.

I don't think that moving forward we're going to see as many individuals who are those sort of lone wolves, not supporting others being valued in organizations as much as they have you know to date.

Alex Colvin  17:07  
It's a fascinating insight because right now we're doing this remote working so in a sense we're doing less direct interaction, but I suppose we're also seeing the value of the social interaction that we do do more than perhaps when we're all sitting around in the same office space but you know maybe not interacting always and maybe the lone wolf looks like they're part of the social cohesion of the organization but they're really not they were just sitting down in the office not really collaborating and not doing it. That's it, that's a really interesting perspective it kind of flips around how we're thinking about the, the impact of the pandemic.

Rebecca Kehoe  17:48  
Yeah, so another thing I've heard and this this was not in the context of a discussion on the stars but I think it certainly has some relevance. I've heard some, some practitioners say that in many cases in this period, the central invisible employees, they're still your central invisible employees, but those employees who tend to be more introverted tend to keep to themselves, they're becoming less and less visible in organizations, they're the ones that are not turning their cameras on in video calls. They're the ones who are not engaging in those optional events that organizations are trying to have to create some social cohesion in this remote environment where at least when we were in the office you could see them you could stop and pass by their desk, which you just can't do anymore. So I think that that could also have implications for who we're identifying, maybe not even yet, when they're stars but who we identify as high potential. If people are even if people are contributing really well as individuals, if they're becoming less visible, then they're not likely to be identified,

Alex Colvin  18:50  
So if they're not on the zoom they don't exist in some sense where we don't see them because they're not on that little checkerboard squares of, you know, four by four three by three of faces that we're seeing on our zoom so they're there, they're not in our mind,

Rebecca Kehoe  19:04  
Right and I think that, I think unfortunately that actually creates a huge disadvantage for people who are just naturally more introverted, but if we think about not just if we think about stars not just as those individuals who have the potential to contribute a great deal of value, but are who are recognized for doing so. I think this could have real implications for who that is.

Alex Colvin  19:25  
That's a great point. I think if we think about the value of people to organizations, and that's a central source of where organizations get their value from if we're missing a segment of the, of the workforce, because they're hidden from us in some sense and we're losing them in this dispersed way in which we're operating that's a huge loss for organizations.

Rebecca Kehoe  19:51  
I think it is, I think, you know, to go back to the question about how this how this period will shape what we know about stars or what we think about stars, I think there's a possibility that we'll have another segment of employees or leaders who become identified as stars that wouldn't have otherwise based on their contributions in this way. Based on, you know, being able to recognize those individuals who need a little more visibility or who need a little bit more support,

who aren't necessarily going to be identified in this time period because you don't see them when you walk by their desk. So I think those, those leaders and even those colleagues who were able to do that are likely to be seen as creating more value for organizations in a way that we might have traditionally undervalued.

Alex Colvin  20:40  
 That's a great message I think for leaders of organizations anybody who's listening in in that position that there are people there in your organizations who potentially could be stars and this is a time maybe to seek out people who you wouldn't have identified before and recognize the stars that you have in your organization and help them to succeed. 

Rebecca Kehoe  21:03  
Yeah, I've heard, I've heard from several practitioners, sort of on both sides of that both sides of that question. So identifying those people who are really stepping up in that sense and providing support and and identifying with people who need support, but then also, those people who were, we knew they were high performers before and somehow they're just falling away because they're becoming less visible, and what can we do to shine a light on them so that they can sort of regain their performance regain their visibility and role in in the organization.

Alex Colvin  21:35  
Well, some fascinating insights there for how we think about people in organizations. Thanks very much to Rebecca Kehoe a faculty remember here at the ILR School in human resource studies for some fantastic research and some great insights for organizations and for employees. Thank you very much.

Rebecca Kehoe  21:50  
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Julie Greco  21:52  
Thank you for listening to "Work!" You can subscribe to our podcast, at, or on iTunes. If you have a recommendation for a guest or topic to be discussed on a future episode. Just click on the link in the show notes of this episode and leave your suggestion. Again, Thank you for listening.

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