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Giving Top Performers the Star Treatment: Is Meritocracy Overrated?


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Apr 21, 2017 | by Seymour Adler


Researchers have recently argued for greater focus on star performers both in our research and in our practice1,2,3. They define star performers as those who, relative to average performers in similar roles, produce output that is far superior in quantity or quality (or both). Although there have always been star performers, these authors and others have argued that the development of a knowledge economy is leading to a material increase in both the contribution of stars to organizational performance as well as to a realization that there are more stars inside organizations than previously thought.

Much of the recent interest—and controversy—over the significance of star performers emerges from analysis of a wide variety of performance data sets, from the number of points scored in the National Basketball Association to the scholarly publication count in 54 separate academic fields2. Among the implications of these analyses: There are more star performers in organizations, and those stars perform substantially better than the average employee—better than what would be predicted if performance is, as typically thought, normally distributed. In a knowledge economy, these highly talented employees are freed from the constraints of industrialized work (in the extreme case, the assembly line) to translate extraordinary talent into truly extraordinary contributions.

There are a number of studies that document the disproportionate value that star performers contribute to their employers4,5. For example, in one study, the top 20 percent of salespeople generated 80 percent of total sales6. Accordingly, advocates of “star treatment” argue that reward and recognition process in organizations should strongly reflect the disproportionate value star performers contribute to organizational success7,8.

In contrast, others have argued that both the number and relative contributions of star performers is greatly exaggerated9,10,11. Opponents of a star-focused approach have shown that when the assessment of job performance conforms to appropriate measurement criteria, the typical distribution of individual performance actually follows a normal distribution with stars relatively rare, rather than a star-rich, long-tailed distribution. Moreover, those in the “anti-star treatment” camp caution against the application of strongly differentiated star-focused reward and recognition practices. They cite, among other reasons, the demotivating impact of such elitist treatment on the “mighty middle”—those solid performers that make up the vast majority of employees and whose day-to-day contributions largely determine organizational success. In addition they note the inability of performance appraisal tools to adequately differentiate stars in a way that is seen as accurate and fair12. In this view, the potential value of meritocratic practices in most organizations is over-rated and implementing such practices should be approached with extreme caution given the potential unintended negative consequences11.

The issue of whether or not organizations should embrace strongly meritocratic practices that disproportionately recognize star performers will be debated at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference in Orlando, FL. Key questions to be addressed in the course of the debate include:

  • Has I-O psychology underestimated the number of performance stars and the degree to which their performance stands above the performance of average employees by assuming that performance is normally distributed?
  • Has the changing nature of work in the 21st Century enhanced (e.g., due to the emergence of the knowledge economy) or blunted (e.g., due to the increased significance of collaboration and team work) the value of individual stars relative to average performers?
  • Should our talent acquisition, talent management, and reward and recognition practices be configured to maximize the selection, retention, and motivation of star performers at the expense of other employee populations?


The debate will be moderated by Marc Effron, a widely-respected talent management consultant and editor of the highly successful publication, Talent Quarterly. The pro-star treatment perspective will be represented by two prominent I-O psychologists who bring a strong scientist-practitioner perspective to this issue: Seymour Adler, who is a Partner in the Talent, Rewards, and Performance practice at Aon Hewitt, the world’s largest Human Resources consulting firm and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (U.K.) and one of the most widely-published academics of his generation. The anti-star treatment perspective will be presented by Paul Sackett of the University of Minnesota, a former SIOP President, past Editor of two of our most prominent journals, and one of the most highly respected scholars in the field. Paul will be joined by a prominent practitioner, Alan Colquitt of Eli Lilly & Company the global pharmaceutical firm. Alan is a frequent and highly popular SIOP presenter, a thoughtful analyst of the talent landscape, and strongly rooted in our science as a guide for talent practices. He recently led the initiative to reconsider and radically redesign how Eli Lilly conducts performance management.

                                                    Come and join the debate!

                 “Giving Top Performers the Star Treatment: Is Meritocracy Overrated?”

                2017 Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology
                                              Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin
                                                               April 27, 2017
                                                                 10:30 AM
                                                                Australia 3

                                                                References

1Aguinis, H., & O’Boyle, E. (2014). Star performers in twenty-first century organizations. Personnel Psychology, 67, 313-350.

2O’ Boyle, E.H., & Aguinis, H. (2012). The best and the rest: Revisiting the norm of normality of individual performance. Personnel Psychology, 65, 79-119.

3O’Boyle, E.H., & Kroska, S. (in press). Star performers. Oxford Handbook of Talent Management. Oxford: Oxford University Press

4Hunter, J. E., Schmidt, F. L., & Judiesch, M. K. (1990). Individual differences in output variability as a function of job complexity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(1), 28-42. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.75.1.28.

5Sturman, M.C., Trevor, C.O., Boudreau, J.W., & Gerhart, B. (2003). Evaluating the utility of performance based pay. Personnel Psychology. 56(4), 2003, 997-1035. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2003.tb00248.x

6Aoyama H, Yoshikawa H, Iyetomi H, & Fujiwara Y. (2010). Productivity dispersion: Facts, theory, and implications. Journal of Economic Interaction and Coordination, 5, 27–54.

7Abosch, K. (2012).  You can’t afford to pay for everyone’s performance.  Workspan, 5, 39-44.

8Adler, S., & Segal, L. (2016). Reaching for the stars: Managing performance in the era of free agency.  Talent Quarterly, July, 19-23.

9Beck, J. W., Beatty, A. S., & Sackett, P. R. (2014). On the distribution of job performance: The role of measurement characteristics in observed departures from normality. Personnel Psychology, 67(3), 531-566.

10Boudreau, J. (2016).  Is meritocracy overrated?  Use with caution.  Talent Quarterly, July, 25-31.

11Boudreau, J., Jesuthasan, R., Creelman, D. (2015). Lead the work. New York: Wiley.

12Adler, S., Campion, M., Colquitt, A., Grubb, A., Murphy, K., Ollander-Krane, R., & Pulakos, E. D. (2016). Getting rid of performance ratings: Genius or folly? A debate. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 9(02), 219-252.

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