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How do superstar software developers affect team morale?

March 04, 2022

Each month, as you examine your software engineering metrics, one developer stands out. She writes triple the amount of code compared to other team members, and it’s clean. Her work sails through code reviews with minimal comments. 


You might be inclined to shine a spotlight on her exceptional performance and hold her up as an example of what you want from all team members. But pause before you do that and read this interview. Kelby Zorgdrager, co-founder of DevelopIntelligence, A Pluralsight Company, discusses how to maintain morale in a team with a superstar.

What qualities do standout software developers have?

KZ: The best software developers figure out ways to solve problems quickly, efficiently, dependably and with minimal guidance. These self-starters are willing to step in with a good attitude to help with any project, even if it requires learning on-the-go. They stand out because they deliver continuous excellence. Their work is thorough, clever and on point. 

Week after week, month after month, they supply creative solutions, on time, with high quality and within whatever parameters you’ve defined. Their motivation is intrinsic; they are not performing in this way for personal glory or gain.

Superstars assume they will be able to solve a problem and aren’t thwarted by barriers. They figure out a way through, over or around obstacles and keep going until the job is done. These engineers also have a penchant for spotting opportunities. They anticipate what customers need before customers even articulate those needs.

You want to clone these employees.

How do you manage an engineer like this and prevent team tension?

KZ: While it’s a joy to have a star performer on your team, a manager needs to be ultra careful to make sure all team members feel valued. Here’s my advice:

Acknowledge star employees privately. Make sure they know you see and value their excellence. Be specific yet sparing with your praise. Instead of “good job,” spell out what you liked about the most recent project. For example, “The way you illustrated that data got the point across in one slide instead of 10. You came up with a really creative approach to highlighting the central takeaways from the research study.”

Calling out an employee’s exceptional performance publicly can create resentment and jealousy—particularly if you do it repeatedly and/or hold the person up as an example to emulate. If you mention the person’s work publicly, do it as part of a team acknowledgement, instead of singling out the superstar. For example, “This team hit XYZ presentation out of the park. Thanks to Jill, who made the slides graphically awesome. Thanks to [superstar], who found a way to illustrate the data in one slide. Thanks to Tom, who did a brilliant job with the financial section. And so forth.”

Private praise for individuals is a best practice for any team situation, not just ones involving superstars. You want to avoid elevating one employee over another in public forums.

Pay your high performers for their contributions. If you’ve got a person who’s delivering three times as much value as other people with the same job title, make sure you’re accounting for that with appropriate compensation and perks. If you can’t adjust the person’s salary, find other ways to reward the effort—reimbursement to go to a training course or industry conference, additional time off and other incentives for employees. Again, keep this acknowledgement private to avoid creating resentment. 

Make sure your superstars do not burn out. Top performers tend to be workhorses. It’s tempting to rely on them more and more, because you can depend on them for excellence. But this has downsides:

  • If you give all the plum assignments to your top performer, other employees may become resentful. They may turn that resentment on your superstar, creating an unpleasant environment that leads to her departure.
  • Other employees don’t get the opportunity to learn as much, which hurts your organization in the long term. Instead, you want to bring all employees toward the level of the high performer—instead of relying so heavily on that individual.

Get to know your superstars’ career goals. Just because someone is a high performer doesn’t mean they want a promotion into management. In fact, some top employees are deeply satisfied with their individual contributor work. They may want to grow laterally more than vertically by working on more complex assignments and learning adjacent skills.

“Model” high performers. Ask your top engineers for details on how they approach their work. Take notes and consider inviting these subject matter experts to partner with your L&D specialists to create and/or review technical learning programs for new hires. Involving them in curriculum discussions is a way to acknowledge quietly that you value their expertise.

Downplay the “star” dynamic. Elevating some employees by acting as if they are stars interferes with team dynamics. You want a workplace where every employee feels their work is valued and that they are important players on the team.

If you start highlighting one person’s work, other employees may start wondering, “Does my manager see my contribution? Am I enough?” This can feel unsafe for other team members and breed resentment over time.

All employees want to know they are making a difference—that the manager values their work and the employer cares about their career growth.

What other people management issues are affecting your team's morale? Hint: You can find clues in your engineering data.