How High Performers Can Cause Resentment

June 14, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image high performer vs low performer

When High Performers are Resented and Not a Source of Inspiration

If you have shining stars or high performers in your organisation, how are they perceived by their co-workers? As source of inspiration and someone to look up to or turn to for advice? Or are they  seen as a threat, perhaps as someone who shines the spotlight on others’ weaknesses or takes the best jobs and gets the praise from the boss?

New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at workplace reactions to high performers and their impact on those around them. It seems those in high performers in more cooperative and collegial organisational culture, are more likely to be seen as a threat rather than a source of inspiration.

In their study of 284 US undergraduates, Campbell et al worked with two teams: ‘cooperative teams’ (in which interaction was described as collaborative discussion and rewards split equally) and ‘competitive teams’ (in which interaction was ‘spirited debate’ and there were more individualised rewards, but still collaborating to achieve a common goal). Individual team members were isolated and asked to solve problems. After each problem completed, they each received information about the performance of each other team member – and had the opportunity to exchange messages with each other (although this was all made up and the participants did not know this). Participants were asked how they felt about some of the other specific team members, including those made to seem like the high fliers or ‘hotshots’.

Those who perceived a star performer in their team as a ‘threat’, tended to join in nastiness and backbiting about the hotshot from another team member. Crucially though this only occurred in the so-called ‘cooperative team’. In the ‘competitive team’, there was no heightened denigration of the hotshots. So rather than simply not helping out strong performers in a cooperative culture, this experiment showed that a cooperative culture saw more belittling of hot shots. This is because, Campbell offers, a cooperative climate is fundamentally about group solidarity and conformity as shown in previous social psychology studies.

So, consider the impact on your business if you are in what you see to be a supportive, cooperatively focused organisation.

You may already feel challenged to retain your high performers who may be enticed away from you by the competition. Add to that external temptation the internal problem of a climate which sees great talent as a threat and is ridiculed, with attempts to bring him or her down, perhaps the climate that resents outstanding performers, and you may be find it hard to hold onto your talent.


Campbell, E. M., Liao, H., Chuang, A., Zhou, J., & Dong, Y.  (2017, May). Hot shots and cool reception? An expanded view of social consequences for high performers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(5).

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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