Effective Teams Part 1: What Drives Team Performance?

Sep 1, 2010
6 Min Read

On my first post on the Team Leadership blog, I mentioned that one of the ten things effective teams have in common is norms. A few weeks ago, Wired magazine ran a write up of a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that illustrates the power of team norms quite well. Here is a quick summary of the study (quoted from the Wired article):

“Each participant (real and virtual) was given a pool of points in each round of the game. These could be kept or put into a central kitty for the team. Putting points into the kitty doubled their value. The participant was then allowed to withdraw up to a quarter of the points contributed by the other four into their own personal bank. They were encouraged to withdraw less than a quarter of the points by being told that if they left them in the kitty they would have an improved chance of winning an unspecified bonus for the group. When the game was over, participants could convert their points into meal vouchers.

Most of the fictitious four competitors playing against each participant would make seemingly fair swaps of putting points into the kitty and taking points for themselves. But one of the four often would make lopsided exchanges — greedily giving up no points and taking a lot from others or unselfishly giving up a lot of points and taking few for themselves.

When the game was over, the researchers interviewed the people in the study, asking who they would prefer to work with again. The least desired team members? The ones who made the lopsided exchanges---those whose behavior was on either extreme side of the spectrum. So both the greedy players as well as the unselfish players came out as undesirable colleagues.

It wasn’t that they were seen as confused or unpredictable; follow-up experiments ruled that explanation out. Rather, it was thought that those players were breaking rules, making them look bad, or had ulterior motives. This is in spite of the fact that their do-gooder behavior was in their favor!

This study used temporary and fictitious team members---the participants didn’t know each other and they never had to work together again. What would happen if real colleagues who work together daily for months deviate from the group’s informal rules? A similar study was done back in the 1930s, which shows what happens when something like this happens within an existing work team.

In the 1930s study, the researchers proposed incentive pay: extra income was offered for increased individual production. What happened when extra pay was offered? Production… stayed the same. The reasons were similar: the group questioned the motives of the researchers, didn’t trust their company, and individual workers who ramped up or dialed down their efforts were sabotaged or ridiculed by the rest of the team. Being accepted by the group was more important than the extra money.

The work of teams has changed quite considerably since the 1930s experiment, as is reflected in the experimental design. But the fact that remains is our teams and organizations are highly social, with social forces controlling much of our behavior, and consequently, performance. And creativity. These experiments show that group norms control the amount of work that a team performs very effectively through peer pressure and informal group rules.

In Part 2, I'll cover some specific examples of what kind of informal rules may exist on a working team and in Part 3, I'll highlight how we can influence and interrupt a team's habits.

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