Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

When Teamwork Backfires

Businesses tout the importance of teamwork, but it can backfire for some workers

Posted Jan 19, 2016

© Dmitriy Shironosov | Dreamstime.com - Teamwork, royalty free
Source: © Dmitriy Shironosov | Dreamstime.com - Teamwork, royalty free

A truism in the workplace is that teamwork is necessary and effective for productivity. In fact, most managers enthusiastically embrace the concept based on years of experience in managing their companies' bottom lines. In his 2013 article for Forbes Magazine, Quora Engineer Edmond Lau put it this way:  "Working effectively as part of a team is incredibly important for output quality, morale, and retention." He points out that compared to working alone, working in teams

  • Makes it easier to get early and continual feedback, thereby increasing output quality
  • Increases learning because workers are exposed to more projects over time
  • Reduces the risk that the project will come to a halt if a worker gets sick, leaves the company, or takes a leave of absence
  • Increases accountability for work output
  • Increases morale (because there are others with whom to share the highs and lows of a project), thereby increasing project momentum

 As every manager knows, the make-up of a team matters. Some groups "gel" while others just get on each other's nerves. What every manager may not know, however, is that gender-balanced teams win hands-down when it comes to productivity.

Economics researchers at MIT and George Washington University analyzed eight years of revenue data and survey results (1995 to 2002) from a professional-services firm with more than 60 offices in the United States and abroad. They found that shifting from an all-male or all-female office teams to ones split evenly along gender lines increased revenue by roughly 41 percent. The results were published in 2014 in the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy.

A 2014 Gallup study also found that a demographically diverse workforce improves a company's financial performance. The study looked at more than 800 business units from two companies representing two different industries  (retail and hospitality). Gender-diverse business units in retail had 14% higher average comparable revenue than less-diverse business units (5.24% vs. 4.58%), and gender-diverse business units in the hospitality company showed 19% higher average quarterly net profit ($16,296 vs. $13,702) than less-diverse business units. Similarly, the Anita Borg Institute reports that for Fortune 500 companies with at least 3 women directors, return on sales increases by at least 42%.

Were these results truly due to the gender composition of teams, or could other overlooked factors have contributed to the differences in company performance? To answer this question, George Washington University researchers randomly assigned more than 300 management students to male-only, female-only, or gender-balanced teams. In keeping with the results reported above, gender-balanced teams were found to outperform both predominantly male and predominantly female teams. The results were presented at the 29th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

The Downside of Teamwork

Now the downside: While teamwork clearly benefits a company's bottom line when teams are gender-balanced, it turns out that a team's success does not benefit the careers of men and women equally. In fact, the contributions of the women on the team are likely to be overlooked or downgraded relative to the contributions of their male teammates.

Researchers at New York University explored how ambiguity about team member's contributions negatively impact evaluations of women. Participants were to evaluate the performance of two people who were randomly assigned to work together as a team to put together a winning stock portfolio. The results showed that unless participants were explicitly given information about each team member's contribution to the task, female members were devalued as compared with their male counterparts: They were rated as being less competent, less influential, and less likely to have played a leadership role.

This negative bias toward women's contributions can have serious impact on women's careers. Heather Sarsons, an economics PhD candidate at Harvard, compiled four decades of records on over 500 tenure decisions at the top 30 economics schools in the nation. She found that, while women in the field publish as much as men, they are half as likely to be promoted to tenure. Those hardest hit were women who collaborated with men on their research papers. Women who solo authored all their work were found to have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as men. In other words, women only receive credit for their work when there is no man in the picture to receive the credit instead. This was true even when the woman involved in the project was senior to the man or men involved.

What to Do About It

How to combat these negative assumptions regarding women's work contributions? Perhaps the first place to start is changing women's attitudes towards themselves.

A May 2013 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women who work with men are far less likely to take credit for their own work than those who collaborate with other women. When working in gender-balanced teams, women tend to give more credit than is true to their male coworkers.

Similarly, economics researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara and the National Center for Scientific Research asked male and female students from undergraduate engineering and business schools to work alone or as part of a team on a project, while ensuring that the teams were evenly mixed with male and females. There was no difference in output between men and women, whether they worked alone or worked in teams. But when the participants were asked to evaluate their teammate's abilities, women reported much higher expectations and confidence in their partners than men did. The results were published in 2013 as a working paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The bottom line:

The research in this area seems to point to the following conclusions:

  • Teamwork improves output productivity and morale in work settings.
  • Gender-balanced teams routinely outperform men-only or women-only teams.
  • Both men and women devalue women's contributions in teamwork projects.
  • Men's careers benefit from collaborations with women because team successes are more likely to be attributed to men's efforts, whether this is true or not.
  • In order for women to ensure that they receive fair credit for their work, women should work solo, collaborate only with other women, or ensure that their contributions are explicitly documented and acknowledged when working with men.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins Januar 19, 2016

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge University Press).

More information about me can be found on my homepage.

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