Voluntarily formed teams perform better than alternatives

There is quite a lot of evidence for women’s aversion to highly competitive work environments, and women seem to perform less well when stuck in such workplaces. So, it begs the question: in what environments do women do well, if testosterone-saturated stress factories fail to engage them? Are women naturally more cooperative than men, more altruistic and less hierarchically-inclined? Is it somehow related to women being less advantageous inequity-averse (being more accepting of their partner making more money than them)?

New research from Peter Kuhn and Marie Claire Villareal sets about to explore those questions, and comes down with some fairly clear results. The basic structure of the research was to offer the alternative of solitary work and pay versus cooperative work and pay. And there the gender difference immediately appeared: men are much more likely to opt for solitary work, and women, cooperative work.

As the authors state,

While it might be tempting to imagine that women are disproportionately attracted to cooperative environments because they tend to be more altruistic or egalitarian (e.g. Andreoni and Vesterlund 2001), our results are more complex than this. Indeed, we do find that women are significantly more likely than men to select team-based compensation in our baseline condition, where team production offers no efficiency advantages over individual production and where the individual’s choice does not affect the partner’s earnings. Statistically, this gap can be explained by gender differences in confidence: essentially, the same confidence deficit that pushes women out of competitions pulls women into teams, where it is beneficial to have an abler teammate.

So, men are more likely to be overconfident of their own abilities, while women tend to underestimate theirs. So, absent a strong incentive of some sort, more men will opt to work as a soloist and more women will opt to team. There are some important subtleties, though.

First, when the work involved can be done more efficiently with a cooperative group, and that efficiency differential is known to the possible participants, then men will increase their propensity to team dramatically. Indeed, their increase in teaming climbs more quickly than women in that situation. As the authors put it,

Interestingly, we also find that compared to men in the baseline condition, men become much more likely to join teams and the gender gap vanishes when we introduce an instrumental reason for joining teams, in particular an efficiency advantage to team production.

So what factors act as impediments to women working cooperatively? The way that teams are formed turns out to be critical:

We also find that women’s relative propensities to join a team are strongly affected by the rules for team formation. Specifically, when teams are formed by mutual consent, women’s team formation rate increases dramatically; we show that this phenomenon is consistent with women being more advantageous inequity-averse than men.

It turns out that as a general rule randomly assigned teams are more efficient than self-selected teams: that is to say, in a situation when people are made to form teams, random teams do better. However, in a context where teaming is voluntary, those teams formed by women through mutual consent perform best. And, across the board, it seems that teams of women perform best.

The Bottom Line

Let me offer a few observations from this important study, based on the premise of organizing work in ways that leverages the best of all people’s proclivities to the benefit of all.

When efficiencies are likely to arise from working cooperatively rather than alone, make that clear as background and as a motivator. For example, financial compensation should work in alignment with that reality.

Mandating teams leads to less effective teams in general, and self-selected teams are less effective than random ones in that context. In general, voluntarily formed teams are most effective — especially for women — so coercive approaches to team formation should be avoided. This actually has huge implications since it runs counter to the way that most businesses operate. Consider a company hiring a marketing person. In general, that person is assigned to a team with a group of people that have not been formed voluntarily. It’s basically a sort of self-selected team.

Food for thought: It might be better for hire new marketing people into the department and let people form their own teams, especially for women. The same, of course would hold in engineering, customer support, etc., or in the company as a whole.

It’s completely reasonable to imagine a company where both highly cooperative and very loose, solitary work is allowed and encourage, depending on the differential of efficiency across the work being done, and forming a gradient of options and economic outcomes. But it’s starting to looking the baseline approach in today’s business is not likely to yield the best results, and also leads to lower job satisfaction.

One of the ways that companies might tend toward higher levels of employee engagement is to accept the intuitive logic of voluntarily forming teams — or not — as a central aspect of work autonomy and mastery.