Catch a Falling Star – Before it Destroys Your Team

Many technical and scientific teams have stars. They are brought in with specialized knowledge or experience to give the team an advantage. They start on the team high above the rest: above in knowledge, above in experience and often above in special privilege. Unfortunately, all too often these stars fall. They fall from the heights of the heavens and destroy the team. How can one person with so much knowledge and talent destroy a team? Here is how. And what to do about it.

Typical Star Scenario

A star engineer or scientist is brought into the team because of their exceptional talent. Initially, they are seen as a savior to a business problem. The leader is excited to have them and makes sure they are happy. Often without even realizing it, the leader becomes biased when facing issues between team members and supports the star most every time. This is the beginning of the falling star.

Often while these technical stars are solving important problems, they are doing it in a way that destroys the team. Their lack of interpersonal acumen, lack of sensitivity to others, and generally low EQ upsets others. They are curt because they “know” they are right. They don’t include people because “I know best”. They are impatient with others who “don’t get it.” Very soon this corrosive behavior destroys the team culture. The team devolves into “everyone for themselves.” Team members avoid the star either because they don’t like dealing with them, or they avoid them to hurt the stars results. Either way the net result is there is no more collaboration, and results suffer badly. The star has fallen.

For example, 2 teams I am working with right now are experiencing this problem: 2 different teams in 2 different companies, both technical organizations. In both cases, there is a star, someone who is highly regarded for their knowledge, is undermining the team.

In one case, the star is over-the-top rude, yelling and cursing at people who make mistakes. In another case, he is unaware that his communication comes across as demeaning and condescending.

Both stars know their stuff. They are right on the content. They are the most knowledgeable in their topic area. But the way they talk to people is destroying the team. Others on the team don’t want to talk to them. They don’t want to bring problems to the star, even if they are the only person who can help. Morale has dropped and so has results.

The Leadership Dilemma

Both leaders overseeing the stars in these cases face a dilemma. They believe they need the star more than anyone else. They believe that the star is so bright that they can’t afford to lose them. But in actuality, it is the reverse – they can’t afford to keep the star who is falling! The cost of a falling star is a team destroyed. The price of prioritizing head smarts at the expense of heart smarts is morale spiraling downward. And performance soon follows. Keeping the star performer who is off track will eventually be the demise of the team.

What is one to do?

4 Ways to Handle the Falling Star

A team with a rude, insensitive, or bullying member who is protected by the leader cannot be high performing. When the one person who is most highly regarded destroys trust and the feeling of safety, others recoil and stop sharing their ideas. Unfortunately, I have seen it over and over in teams I’ve consulted to.

Here are 4 ways to prevent the falling star and handle it as they begin to fall:

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  • Set the Stars Path – Several best practices companies I have worked with have very clear and explicit cultures. They tell new employees about the organizational values of trust, openness, courtesy and other relevant values the interview for the job. When they arrive, they receive training on the cultural values and expectations. This is ideal If your company is not that advanced, then at least during the first week, explain your philosophy of teamwork to the stat What do you expect from individuals in terms of working together? You don’t know what their previous job was like, so don’t assume they know what you want in terms of communication, collaboration, and handling conflict.
  • Call Out “see that shooting star!” Charlie was rude. He sent nasty emails. He yelled on the phone to colleagues. His manager knew. Yet, he was never told that his behavior was unacceptable. Instead, his behavior was excused because he was a star. Charlie’s story is all too common. If the leader doesn’t nip it in the bud, the toxic culture will slowly destroy the team. It’s like when a child hits their sibling. If you don’t say anything, it will continue.
  • Support the Star – At Facebook, they hired a star performer because he was an industry leading star, but turns out he was a jerk. He was a corporate political animal because he had worked in the corporate political jungle for years. It was common in his world that if someone made a mistake, that you brought them into a meeting and berated them for being an idiot. Everyone soon hated this new star performer because he was using this style and attacking people left and right. Facebook has the opposite culture. They value trust and take responsibility. So instead of ignoring the start problem and instead of firing him, they gave him a coach. In a meeting room at the Facebook campus, this tough political animal tells me with tears in his eyes “My wife and daughter tell me I am a different person since I started at Facebook. Here’s my phone. Call her right now. She will tell you. Their investment in me changed my life for the better.” He learned how to play nice. They saved the star. If you have a star that is undermining the culture, don’t enable them. Call it out and give them the support they need to succeed.
  • Snuff out the Star – Sometimes the bar of courtesy and respect is too high for a star. Maybe it’s just not the right fit. They might be wounded from their past and unable to let go of their divisive behavior. In these cases, you have no choice but to bite the bullet and let them go. [/message] [su_spacer]

We all need teams with the best and the brightest. I’ve worked with teams with more book smarts and degrees than seems possible – multiple individuals with a Medical Degree, an MBA, and a PhD. (How does someone do that, by the way?) The teams that thrive have stars upholding a positive culture. They work with their colleagues as equals, despite knowledge or experience differences. Because true stars are not simply more knowledgeable than everyone else, they are more knowledgeable and nicer than everyone else.

Lawrence Polsky
Lawrence Polskyhttp://teamsofdistinction.com/
Lawrence Polsky is co-founder of Teams of Distinction, a world-renowned firm focused on creating and enhancing organizational cultures, and building teams that collaborate with near perfect synchronicity. He spent 20 years in OD & Learning, teaching thousands of professionals worldwide. His lifelong education in human behavior began at the age of 9 at the kitchen table. With a Master’s in Organization Development, and post-graduate work focusing on the impact of emotions on communication, problem-solving and relationships, Lawrence prides himself on bringing his kitchen table wisdom to boardroom roundtables. He has helped leaders improve results at technical and scientific companies such as Facebook, Pfizer, Dell, Intuit, Bayer, and NASA. You can reach him at lpolsky@teamsofdistinction.com or (609)333-0653.
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Larry Tyler
Larry Tyler

Great post. When I interview people I listen for how they collaborate with teams members. I do a lot of interaction with people questions and always ask how they structure and engage a team. I don’t want superstars I want great teams where the contribution is shared and everyone has a voice.

Sandy Chernoff

Like this post…….there are many companies that should read it!! This is certainly the old: “you get the behavior you tolerate” story and if nothing is said or done the person will think what they are doing is acceptable.
Good advice on how to handle it…..in some cases it might be prudent not to hire the star in the first place if they are not going to fit into your existing culture, unless they agree to coaching up front. Thanks for sharing!

Chris Pehura

The world is a very small place. Being on the bleeding edge of what’s going on, I often share what I find with others. I remember one time, and this was way back when I shared some of these concepts on “the Cloud” when it was very new. I ran into this one gentleman that credited every success he had to being a knowledgeable expert in the area. So I was curious on his thoughts of the fundamentals about a new thing at the time called the “private Cloud”. He told me that I was an idiot and would fire me on the spot for asking such a stupid question. Well, you reap what you sow because a few months later I was asked to interview someone regarding a project manager position. And when I entered the room, there was the guy that called me an idiot. It was obvious that he didn’t remember me. Also, I didn’t hold his past rudeness against him. We all make lapses in judgement. But, then I heard the exact same song and dance he gave me before. So I couldn’t help myself. I asked about the Cloud. He told me good question, and talked about how wonderful the “private Cloud” was and that he was expert in using it for many years.

The company decide to bring the guy aboard despite my concerns that he will cause friction. And boy, he sure rubbed people the wrong way. Four well ran projects blew up because of “conflicts”. So the guy was gone after three months. The thing was the guy talked a good game, but just couldn’t deliver. But I’m glad I ran into him. He is the archetype I use for how a person can make good things turn bad.

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