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When Talent Backfires

Too much talent can break teams apart

Whether its business or sports, we tend to believe that filling our organization with talented people is always a good thing – and the more talent, the better. But, new research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that this hunch isn’t necessarily correct. As the authors say, “when teams need to come together, more talent can tear them apart.”

Using sports as a test bed to explore the downside of talent, a group of social scientists from Europe and the U.S. started by analyzing the performance of national soccer teams leading up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The researchers tabulated how much “top talent” each national team had (in a nut shell, the percentage of players on each team who had contracts with the best and most elite club teams in the world). To make sure they were getting the top talent right, the researchers cross indexed their talent list with players selected for the FIFA All-Star team – that is, the most talented players in the World Cup (all of the FIFA All-Star players had been coded by the researchers as top talent). Next, the scientists looked at whether the percent of top talent players on a team predicted wins in the World Cup qualification rounds. Sure enough, having lots of top talent benefited teams up to a point after which more talent was actually detrimental to a team’s performance.

The researchers then moved on to data from the National Basketball Association (NBA). Again, they developed a rubric to measure “top talent” across ten seasons from 2002-2012. And, again, they found that having lots of talented players helped up to a point, after which it led to a reduction in end-of-year wins.

Why might having too many talented individuals on the field, court or in the kitchen spoil the soup? The answer has to do with how team members work together. Using stats like average numbers of assists per game and defensive rebounds as measures of team coordination in the NBA data, the researchers found that, after a certain point, the more top talent a team had, the less team coordination they showed on the court and the worse the team performed.

If a lack of team coordination is really why too much talent can be a bad thing, then for sports where there is less of a need to coordinate among individual players (e.g., baseball as compared to basketball), the negative impact of having too much talent shouldn't be as pronounced. Using data from Major League Baseball (MLB), that’s exactly what the researchers found. The more talent on the baseball field, the better the performance...with no downside.

The take home? While it’s good to have organizations or teams with lots of talented individuals, there can be too much of a good team. This might be why sports teams loaded with superstar players often fail to live up to expectations.

As I have blogged about before, just assembling lots of talented people doesn’t guarantee success. Quite the opposite actually. If top talent can’t work effectively together, it could equal failure instead.

For more on how to perform at your best, check out my book Choke.

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Swaab,  R. I., et al. (in press). The Too-Much-Talent Effect: Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much or Not Enough. Psychological Science

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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