Traditional management thinking has been that if you want to get the most out of a team, that you should incentivize and reward that team as a collective rather than individually. Indeed, many would argue that providing individual rewards does nothing but encourage competition amongst the team.
A recent study suggests that this kind of thinking may be wide of the mark however and that rewarding employees individually can boost the performance of other members of the team, and therefore of the team as a whole.
“Our findings are based on laboratory and field experiments in China, and those findings tell us that recognizing individual team members can supercharge team performance,” the authors say.
Boosting team performance
The researchers asked participants to perform a number of tasks as both individuals and in a team environment. Praise was meted out to the top performers in around half of the teams, before similar tasks were repeated again.
Lo and behold, in this second round of tasks, the participants in the groups that had been praised saw a boost in performance, even if they weren’t the person that had been praised.
The findings were replicated in a live environment in a Chinese manufacturing company, suggesting that it may well have some legs.
“In contrast to much of the conventional wisdom that recognizing individuals might somehow hurt the success of the team, we found that recognizing individual team members helps teams in two important ways,” the authors say. “First, team members observe one another’s behavior and set out to emulate the success of their team’s top performer. Rather than stimulate resentment in a team — as might be the case with financial rewards — public recognition of high performers actually motivates a strong desire to succeed in the rest of the team members. We call these ‘recognition spillover effects’ because they transfer from one team member to another.
“Second,” they continue, “because each team member is changing his or her behavior to match the actions of the most successful team member, the performance of the whole team rises. And we found that these spillover effects are magnified if the reward recipient is someone who is central to the team — i.e., someone that other team members often turn to for assistance.”
Rewarding star performers
The paper reveals that teams nearly always perform much better when the individual within the team who is prepared to go significantly beyond the call of duty is right in the middle of the team, whereby they can influence and inspire as many of their colleagues as possible.
In other words, if you can place these star players strategically throughout your workplace, it can have a big impact on team performance and dynamics.
“The extra miler has more of an influence in the center because they have more contact with other workers and because others can see what they’re doing,” the authors say. “Through this role modeling, everyone on the team becomes better. If the extra miler is on the periphery, they don’t come into contact with as many team members and nobody notices them.”
It’s something that has often been said, especially in tech circles, where star developers are said to be infinitely more valuable to team success than average developers.
These two studies remind us that giving these star players a bit of a boost can actually do wonders for the team as a whole.