Blog Post

The power of a superstar co-worker

March 30, 2015

    Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

    You've probably heard the maxim: A good team is greater than the sum of its parts.

    But what if a good team only becomes great because of its best part?

    That's the finding of a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, where University of Iowa researchers tracked about 600 workers at a Chinese petrochemical company, split into nearly 90 different teams.

    The best-performing teams had strong common processes in place. They knew where to pitch in, when to share work, and how each of them needed to achieve at least a minimum level of quality.

    But what the Iowa researchers found was something that project managers have intuitively understood for centuries: a single superstar coworker can exert outsized influence.


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    These superstars, the researchers noted, wouldn't go the extra inch to get the job done—they went the extra mile. Hence a term they use in the study, "the extra miler."

    Here's how it worked:

    • The researchers determined that a team's performance on any given process was as good as the best person on the team.
    • For example, if the researchers wanted to predict how well the team helped each other, they just needed to figure out how helpful the "extra miler" on the team was.

    According to the Iowa researchers, "even a single extra miler in a vital position plays a more important role in driving team processes and outcomes than do all the other members."

    There's one key wrinkle with that statement: vital position. To get the maximal effects, the superstar coworker needed to be able to work with as many people as possible, the researchers concluded.

    "Evidence suggests that [a few individuals] can influence behavior in wider groups, but they need the opportunity to interact and model superior norms of behavior," writes Alex Fradera, summarizing the study for the BPS Research Digest. "Accordingly, when the extra-miler was huddled away in the back room, their influence was minimal."

    The study essentially suggests that if a good manager wants a great team, there might be a simple recipe: Hire or develop those "extra milers"—and let them run.

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