Praising individual workers can boost performance both for other workers and for the team, scientists have found, contrary to the belief that rewarding individuals increases competition rather than helping team performance.
Conventional wisdom has held that boosting team performance in the workplace should focus on rewarding entire teams that perform well. “Our findings are based on laboratory and field experiments in China, and those findings tell us that recognising individual team members can supercharge team performance,” said Bradley Kirkman, a professor at the North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management.
The researchers had 256 students at a Chinese university perform individual tasks (making small boxes), and then combine into groups to perform a team task (building the boxes into towers). They then praised the top performer in half of the teams, and repeated the individual and team tasks. In this second round, teams whose top performer had been praised improved significantly at both the individual and team tasks – there was no improvement among teams lacking a praised team member. The researchers then tested these findings among workers at a large manufacturing company in northern China.
Some divisions of the company adopted “employee of the month” programmes to recognise top performers on teams, and other divisions did not. The results were similar: only those divisions that singled out top performers saw improvements in both individual and team performance. “In contrast to much of the conventional wisdom that
recognising individuals might somehow hurt the success of the team, we found that recognising individual team members helps teams in two important ways,” Kirkman said.
“First, team members observe one another’s behaviour and set out to emulate the success of their team’s top performer,” he said. “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,” Kirkman said. “Second, because each team member is changing his or her behaviour to match the actions of the most successful team member, the performance of the whole team rises,” he added. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.