Harnessing star power: What every leader can learn from top NHL teams

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

New research has found important lessons for leaders on the ice and in the boardroom.

Using data from five National Hockey League seasons, researchers from the University of Waterloo have shown that long-term success is largely determined by a team’s tendency to save their best players for situations in which these players would have the most impact.

What this shows, according to the study, is that that the amount of human capital an organization has at its disposal is not its ultimate driver of success -- it is how the organization puts their human capital to use.

hockey pckUsing the NHL data, the researchers observed that teams who put their top players on the ice when the team was losing and kept these players on the bench when the team was ahead had higher season-level performance, compared to teams that did not adjust playing time of top players in this manner. Though it may be tempting in the short-term to use the best players, accepting a potential loss and resting those players can pay off in the long-term.

“Essentially, this comes down to allocating resources by need,” says James W. Beck, lead author and associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Waterloo.

“It’s true that time-on-ice for top players was positively related to performance in a given period or game. But player energy is a limited and valuable resource. NHL teams that used this resource strategically were more successful in the long run, even if it meant decreased performance in the short-term.”

Beck believes the study has implications beyond the NHL, particularly for the way organizations should manage their personnel.

“Just as NHL players get fatigued after a shift on the ice, workers in traditional jobs also get fatigued by their work demands, such as meeting tight deadlines and dealing with difficult customers. The results of this study may be informative for managers, dispatchers, and anyone else responsible for assigning others to complete work tasks. It is probably not a great idea to assign your best performer to every problem. Instead, saving their energy for when it’s most needed is likely to pay off in the long run.”

To date, human capital research has emphasized ways that organizations can build these resources, such as recruiting, selecting, and training highly skilled employees. The current study demonstrates that beyond acquiring human capital, organizations would be wise to also carefully consider how this valuable resource can best be put to use.


Efficient Proximal Resource Allocation Strategies Predict Distal Team Performance: Evidence from the National Hockey League, is co-authored with Beck by Aaron M. Schmidt (University of Minnesota), and Michael W. Natali (United States Navy) and was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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