Star Employees Get Most of the Credit and Blame While Collaborating with Non-Stars

Star employees often get most of the credit when things go right, but also shoulder most of the blame when things go wrong, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York. The study explored the potential risks and rewards of collaborating with stars individuals who have a reputation for exhibiting exceptional performance and how individual performance factors into how much credit and blame is shared with collaborators.

‘Stars are human, and they fail from time to time. We wanted to shift the focus away from stars and find out what happens to the people who collaborate with them. How does working with a star hurt and help you, and how can you individually affect these outcomes,’ said Scott Bentley, assistant professor of strategy at Binghamton University’s School of Management.

To get to their findings, Bentley and Rebecca Kehoe, from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, analysed large amounts of data on the performance of hedge funds and fund managers. They also analysed news articles and rankings from financial media outlets to determine what happened to fund managers based on their collaboration with a star.

‘If you left a firm after a successful or unsuccessful collaboration with a star, we wanted to find out how this impacted where you ended up next. Was your next job at a higher-ranked firm or a lower-ranked firm?’ said Bentley. They found that stars often took the majority of the credit when things went right, but also took most of the blame when things went wrong. This meant that non-stars weren’t always penalised after a failed collaboration with a star, but also wasn’t always rewarded with a better position after a successful collaboration with a star.

‘We found that relative to failed collaborations with non-star colleagues failed collaborations with star employees often left non-stars better off. This is because most of the blame is attributed to the star, and non-stars get the benefit from being able to work alongside a star employee and learn from them,’ said Bentley. Bentley and Kehoe also explored the degree to which individual performance affects the potential risks and rewards of working with a star. What they found is that those with individual successes outside of collaborating with a star often reap even greater rewards of working with stars.

‘Imagine being on a sports team and your star player has to sit out a game. If you end up performing well without them, people are going to shift the attribution for some of that success to you. If you end up playing poorly, that may confirm biases that you’re simply riding on the star’s coattails,’ said Bentley.

Bentley notes that even in failure, high-performing non-stars can still benefit from working with stars.’You now have this status signal that comes with working with a well-known star. People may think ‘well, you had an opportunity to work with a star, so you must be good at what you do, even if the collaboration didn’t go well,’ he said.

Bentley previously published another paper that explored different types of stars, and the unique value that each could bring to a firm. ‘Stars are a really interesting area to research,’ he said. ‘There are a lot of longstanding assumptions and ideas about working stars that we are beginning to push back against, and there is a lot to learn about how this affects organisations.’