We often convince ourselves that star employees are indispensable. We worry about losing them, even for a short time. At some firms, managers restrict the ability of star employees to attend professional development opportunities, because they fear letting them leave even for a week. Or, they resist attempts to rotate high potentials to other units, even though such lateral transfers might be very beneficial for the individual's development and for the organization's long term effectiveness. Such attitudes about star employees merit examination. Are stars actaully so indispensable? Might losing them, perhaps for a short time, actually be beneficial for a team? John Chen and Pranav Garg examine these issues in a fascinating new paper titled, "Dancing with the stars: Benefits of a star employee’s temporary absence for organizational performance" - published in Strategic Management Journal.
The scholars obtained statistical data on individual and team performance in the National Basketball Association from 1991-2015. They examined how teams performed when a player was lost due to injury for a period of time. Not surprisingly, the researchers find that team performance declines when a star player is absent due to injury. However, they find that team performance rebounds to a level higher than pre-injury when the star player returns to the basketball court. The scholars argue that performance increases because team members develop new knowledge and find new ways of working together in the star's absence. The improved routines and teamwork lead to higher performance when the star returns. Moreover, the star's absence provides opportunities for other team members to display and enhance their skills.
Should you send your star employee to that leadership development program or other professoinal development opportunity? Yes. The authors argue that it's a win-win scenario, benefiting the individual employee and the team overall. Here is an excerpt from their paper:
Sending a star for a training program may be a win-win scenario. While the star is away, the firm can discover new routines and provide opportunities to non-stars that might actually improve the firm’s overall prospects on critical projects. At the same time, training programs can help the star develop team building or leadership skills that contribute to the firm’s longer-term roadmap upon her return... Our study underscores the idea that disruption may foster learning. In doing so, we echo recent thinking that an organization “periodically needs to shake itself up, regardless of the competitive landscape” (Vermeulen, Puranam, and Gulati, 2010: 71) and search for new routines, even when it is performing well.