Teams work better if they pick their partners

Posted on under Today's research

We have said for a long time that the key to creating high performing teams was to select people who enjoy each other’s company. This notion has received powerful confirmation in a recent study. The key, the researchers say, to get people to work together effectively could be giving them the flexibility to choose their collaborators and the comfort of working with established contacts.

What the researchers say: For starters, it’s important to recognize that cooperation between humans makes no sense, said the lead author of the study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“From an evolutionary perspective, cooperation shouldn’t exist between people—you always do better by not cooperating because then people can’t rip you off or take advantage of you” he said.

“Especially in a one-time interaction, it’s essentially paying a cost for someone else to benefit, and researchers have been working for a long time to understand why people evolved to work together.”

In this study, the team aimed to uncover what conditions led people to collaborate most willingly. To answer their questions they solicited subjects through Amazon Turk. Those who agreed to participate played online games in which each player started out with 1,000 monetary units that translated to $1 in real money that they could pocket. If one player agreed to pay another player 50 monetary units, that second person would actually acquire 100 units.

“So, if you essentially agreed to give up five cents, someone else gained 10 cents,” the researchers said.

Each of the 16-round games examined in the study included about 25 participants, some of whom participated in multiple games with different scenarios. In all, 810 people participated in the research.

Some of the games generated random networks, where certain people could interact. Others included clustered networks, in which a small group had multiple connections—an arrangement that was designed to mimic real life, where humans often run in packs socially and at work.

And the networks were either static or dynamic. In static networks, a player could interact only with the assigned partners for the duration. In the dynamic networks, participants could cut ties with another player and form new connections.

Furthermore, some of the games included reputation information. Participants were labeled based on their history of willingness to share money. The idea was to test whether those known to collaborate were favored by other players based on reputation—a factor shown in previous research to play a significant role in whether a person is likely to partner with another.

The researchers were surprised to find that reputation played no role in collaboration in this study. The findings might have departed from prior studies because of the difference in size and study design, he said, explaining that much of the previous work in this area has been conducted in groups of 100 or fewer and mostly involved student subjects. The Turk network used for the new study has been shown to be representative of the U.S. population in terms of age, race and other factors, and introduced players who had no previous connections.

Collaboration rates overall were high—and highest when the participants were operating in clusters and had the ability to drop a partner in favor of another.

“What really seems to matter is the ability to alter the structure of a network,” the lead researcher said. “And the pattern of relationships also made a difference. Those in a known cluster with multiple connections collaborated more, which seems intuitive if you think about how we interact in the real world.”

The findings from this study could have important implications in a variety of settings, including the workplace, he added.

So what? The rise of virtual teams in many firms—sometimes involving people who work in different countries and time zones—may actually be leading to a decline in the productivity of teams generally. Usually, the members of these teams are chosen by management which expects them to work together smoothly. Often they don’t. One case in point is an industry team of a major international law firm that I am working with. Because they were forced to work together, rather than having any choice in the matter, and because they became frustrated by the problems which different time zone working created there was a high turnover of critical personnel and a general, and abrupt, decline in performance. Many studies have shown that humans need to choose those that they work with and have a real say over the conditions under which they work.

What now? Almost every study shows that the future of work lies in the direction of high performing teams, often working virtually. These teams require skilled management to make them work—skills which many managers and supervisors lack. Organizations should take the lessons learned from this study—and others similar ones featured in previous TRs—to heart and not just assume that the choices that their managers make in creating teams will actually lead to the best results.

By Dr Bob Murray