Over this summer's Olympics, few teams would have been unhappy to have an outstanding performer onboard, such as the Jamaican relay team's Usain Bolt. But in other situations, where teams are new and unfamiliar, how does it feel to have a clearly superior performer around? A 2011 study suggests that we get threatened, affecting us to our very bodily core. What's more, close bonding experiences with the new team can actually heighten the threat.
Christena Cleveland and her colleagues were interested in hotshot colleagues because they present a paradox. We like being connected to winners, as our self-esteem leans on social identity: who we are thanks to the groups we belong to. But social identity involves a process of depersonalisation - less me, more us - that takes time. Cleveland's team reasoned that without it, a competing process would be more salient. Social comparison is how we judge ourselves, not by reference to famous, distant people, but through our local worlds - our friends, co-workers, family - in what is sometimes termed the frog pond effect. When we come out poorly in these comparisons we can feel threatened, as our deficiencies are laid bare, and we see that more could be expected of us. If comparison trumps identity in new groups, then outstanding colleagues should stress us out.
To investigate this, fifty-three student participants were separately recruited to work in a trio with two other 'participants' - actually confederates of the experimenters - to accurately solve anagrams. Together with behavioural data, the study used sensors applied to the chest, neck and abdomen to look for a set of cardiovascular markers that together are strongly associated with feeling threatened, rather than simply challenged by an achievable task. After the sensors were applied, the trio would sit together for instructions. Some participants were told they would be competing against the other two for financial rewards. In another condition they were told the trio's performance would be pooled to compete against other teams for prizes. The third was a stronger team condition, where in addition to the shared reward structure the trio completed an unscored pre-test activity, interacting together for eight minutes to solve a hypothetical problem (how to survive a crash on the moon). After this, participants all attempted the anagram problems; however, the confederates were prepped with the anagrams and completed theirs in just half the time it took for the participant to complete their last one.
Analysis of the participants' physiological data for all conditions suggested that relative to pre-session baseline measurements, one of the three threat markers was more present during the anagram task. For the strong team condition, meanwhile, all three markers were active during the task. How did an imaginary moon trip cause this? At study close, participants in this group rated themselves as more psychologically close to their team mates, thanks presumably to this shared experience. While you might think such closeness would attenuate threat, the researchers predicted the reverse: psychological closeness raises the stakes, by surrounding you with those whose opinions matter more, before the feeling that 'we're all part of something bigger' has had the time to bed in.
The authors admit that a control activity that matched the moon problem in time and effort would have been useful. I would also have liked a condition where the confederates didn't outperform the participant, to establish that it wasn't intrinsic to the nature of the anagram task to elicit threat rather than challenge. Nevertheless, the study suggests that when you're in a new pond, the frogs you least want to fall short of are the ones you feel more connected to. In everyday work environments, this may speak to the utility of early team-building exercises in situations were excellence is visible and unevenly distributed.