Too many talented people on your team could actually hamper performance rather than improve it. This is the finding of new research due out in the journal Psychological Science. The findings come from studies of professional sports teams in the World Cup (football/soccer), NBA (basketball), and Major League Baseball. But they apply to your team too.

The research shows that when teams need to work cooperatively to win (as in soccer or basketball), too many individual stars get in the way of high performance. In contrast, when a sport requires a collection of individual performances (as in baseball), having a roster full of top talent doesn’t detract from success.

As I read about this research, I wasn’t thinking of the Miami Heat stars tripping all over themselves in 2011, I was thinking about an investment management company I once advised. The CEO of this investment management company was obsessed with bringing in great talent. He sought out the best in the business, paid them handsomely, and held them each accountable for performing. Because investing is more like baseball, that made a lot of sense (and a lot of money).

But as the organization and the people matured, more and more roles, and even more of the complex business transactions, required collaboration. The prima donnas had never learned how to work well together and the result wasn’t pretty. It was no surprise to me when their teams started to implode and the culture became destructive. They had too many stars.

Know your game

Is your team more like basketball or baseball?

When you think about your team, which model is a better fit? Does your business require that you cooperate and collaborate to succeed? (A product development team would be a prototypical example of a team that needs to work together.) Or is your team a collection of individual performances, as in a sales team?

Build the right team

If your team can succeed with members working mostly independently, then you can put all your attention on recruiting stars, building their skills, and creating incentives for high performance. One team member hitting home runs in no way detracts from the ability of the others to do their jobs.

But if your team needs to win together, you need a more nuanced approach to building the team. Which roles are the most important on the team? How can you find stars for those roles? Then once you have the stars in place, what supporting cast will back them up?   A great striker in soccer needs the person to bring the ball downfield and make the cross so they can score.

Side note: Watch how you measure performance too. If you only measure goals (whatever they look like in your team), few people will be willing to pass the ball at the critical moment. You’ll encourage the less talented members to hold on to work rather than encouraging them to engage the people who can score.

So if you’re feeling guilty about how watching the World Cup is affecting your productivity this month, just remember that watching all those beautiful triangular formations and graceful passes is educational—you’re learning how to work well as a team. So for all of you watching the World Cup, may the best team (but not necessarily the best players) win.

Further Reading

Keep Calm and Carry on is Bad Advice

Do you Remember your Rookie Card?

It’s Not Too Late to Change who you Are