The Too-Much-Talent Effect: How too-much talent may hurt a team’s performance

[Social & Organizational]

What do you get when you put Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh together on one team? A lot of talent. Perhaps, too much. In an article in Psychological Science, Swaab et al. challenge the popular notion that an increase in the number of highly-talented players on a team leads to an increase in a team’s success.

To understand how individual talent affects team performance, Swaab et al. analyzed the rosters, team rankings, and winning percentage for national soccer teams and professional basketball and baseball teams. To index a team’s talent, the researchers used statistics representative of a player’s ability to consistently perform at a high level including elite club team status (FIFA/soccer), estimated wins added* (NBA/basketball), and wins above replacement* (MLB/baseball). Team success was measured using 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup rankings, and winning percentages from NBA and MLB seasons over the past ten years. For both soccer and basketball teams, researchers found a significant correlation between talent and performance. As the number of highly-talented individuals on a team increased so did a team’s performance, but only up to a point, after which a team’s performance declined as talent increased.

Swaab et al. suspect that too-much talent creates competition for status, which leads to less coordination within a team. In a follow-up study of NBA teams, they found that as talent increased so did intrateam coordination (measured by assists, defensive rebounds, and field-goal percentage), but again only up to a point, after which increased talent means decreased coordination. This explanation gained further support as researchers extended their analysis to baseball, a sport which requires less interdependence between team members. For baseball, the authors found talent did not reach the same threshold of “too much” — as talent increased, so did performance.

As any leader knows, a talented team is critical to success, but finding the right balance of talent isn’t always easy. The present research raises intriguing questions about talent and team building strategy on the field, on the court, and in the office.

Swaab, R. I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E. M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A. D. (2014). The Too-Much-Talent Effect Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much or Not Enough. Psychological science, 0956797614537280.

*Estimated Wins Added (EWA) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR): “A player’s overall contribution to his team, as it gives the estimated number of wins a players adds to the team’s season total above what a replacement player would produce” (Swaab et al.).


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