The effects of star performers on company culture, image and identity

Every organization wants “star performers,” those employees that work the hardest – and for good reason. A McKinsey & Company study showed that the average star performer outperforms their peers by 400%, and that number is even higher in certain organizations.

While attracting and retaining the hardest-working people is a major goal of many companies, few studies have investigated how the employees themselves can change the organization – and they do, both inside and out.

Where Culture, Image and Identity Intersect

Every organization is influenced by three intersecting concepts: identity (how companies label themselves and who they are as an organization), image (what outsiders think of the organization), and culture (organizational norms that influence behavior).

These three items are interrelated. For example, if a company changes its identity, this can affect its image. This can also impact how people think about it. Take colleges, for example. If a university was ranked high on a “best of” list and then falls off the list, its image can also take a dive. Outsiders might not think the university is great – and the internal community may start to think the same.

Culture, image and identity shifts can also happen when an organization hires a star.

According to Matthew Lyle, Assistant Professor of Management in the College of Business and lead author of the paper “Gravity’s pull: The identity-related motives and outcomes of hiring stars,” there are different types of star employees.

Performance stars, for example, lack status but harbor incredible performance potential. These stars can change the organization from the inside by not following organizational norms and outperforming their peers.

Universal stars, on the other hand, are high performers with equally high status. Think of Sherlock Holmes – recognized universally for his incredible skill, insiders and outsiders alike would certainly note his hire by a detective agency and change their opinions of the agency as a result.

Then, there are status stars. A good example of this is influencers. Because of their status, they can promote products on their channels and their followers will listen and potentially buy.

Effects on Identity and Image

The Los Angeles Lakers were founded in 1947. They have a long, storied history, but what the Lakers are arguably better known for now isn’t their longevity. It is the fact that in 2018, Lebron James joined the Lakers. His joining had the effect of not only changing the image of the organization, but it also changed the organization itself. For example, according to reports, all the team members would stand up straighter when he entered the locker room.

One star can come in and change how insiders and outsiders think about an organization, but many companies don’t want to hire star employees because they’re expensive. They wonder how much value they create. Plus, there is research that shows that too many star employees can cause infighting. Additionally, existing employees could look at the incoming star and not accept them.

Matthew recommends that organizations focus on rising stars as opposed to universal stars. These employees are less expensive but can provide a lot of quality to the company – but only if you keep them over the long term. If an organization hires a college graduate, and that person starts to realize they are a star employee, that company needs to figure out how to retain them.

“Most of us aren’t born with status, but we may feel that we attained it at some point,” says Matthew.

This can affect a person’s view of themselves and what they feel they deserve.

“What is that shift like? What is it like for people who go through it?,” he continued. “What can managers do to retain people who feel they’ve outgrown the organization?”

Matthew Lyle was assisted by Rory Eckardt at the University of Binghamton, Kevin Corley at the Imperial College of London, and David Lepack, formerly at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (deceased).