We do not think of ballplayers as sources of management wisdom but perhaps we should do so occasionally.
Some years ago Jonathan Papelbon, the preternaturally gifted Red Sox closer, gave an interview to Esquire magazine in which he said, “It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that’s exactly what was happening” with Manny Ramirez, the all-star hitter the Sox traded last season. Ramirez was traded for journeyman outfielder Jason Bay. That is fine by Papelbon who said, “Johnny Ballgame (Bay) plays the game right, plays through broken knees, runs out every ground ball — and was like a breath of fresh air, man! Awesome!”
Papelbon is speaking for everyone and anyone who has ever had the misfortune of being on a team with a guy who may pull his weight, but makes such a big deal of the effort that he sucks the energy out of everyone with whom he comes in contact. While his work may be stellar, his ethic is off-kilter, and as a result sends the team helter-skelter.
Managers often find themselves in a dilemma over such performers for one simple reason: superstars produce. They make the numbers, be it in sales, productivity, efficiency and even customer satisfaction. But while they give, they often take away more. To make it worse such superstars often have friends, or patrons, in high places. The higher ups have little interaction with the superstar who is typically unfailingly polite to them and so the higher productivity is all they care about.
So if you are on a team with a spoiled star, what can you do about it? Often not much. There may be a temptation for individuals get together to sabotage the star’s results. That may get the star exposed but it also opens the others to dismissal, too. But there are ways to protect yourself.
Think straight. Know what you can do and what you cannot do. Think about how you will do your job by working around the spoiled star. If you can avoid being in his presence, do so. You will find yourself in plenty of company.
Do your work. Diligence will keep you focused on the task at hand. It will not get you noticed; spoiled stars have a way of sucking up all the credit. In tough times it may be easier to concentrate on considering the alternative.
Focus attention on your team. Collaborate with those with whom you trust. Work with people who believe as you do. Two people working together can sometimes do the work of three people — not because they work harder but because they work smarter, and more efficiently.
Superstars are not all bad. Their productivity can bring results. After all, the Boston Red Sox won two World Series with Manny Ramirez on their squad. There was little finger-pointing when the champagne was uncorked after the game-clinching victories.
Yet in the long run, spoiled stars who not only think, but act as if life is all about them, will kill team spirit. They will ruin harmony and eventually tank productivity. Baseball does have one legendary philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said — among many things — “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” As well the Red Sox know.
First posted on HBR.org 3.26.2009