The “I” in “team”

I’ve had some fraught experiences working in teams. Perhaps the most farcical was the Young Enterprise team I was part of at sixth form college. There we were, a bunch of optimistic unrealistic 16 and 17 year-olds, thinking we might be millionaires earn some extra pocket money. I should explain the Young Enterprise scheme was designed to get young people to play at being business people, designing a product and selling it, in the hope of raising a new generation of entrepreneurs.
We had a self-appointed “managing director” who balanced misogyny with greasy hair. We came up with a piece of educational software to sell, but things rapidly fell apart. Our software developer had a shouting match with the managing director outside the Maths classrooms, culminating in a coup (after various things had been chucked around). We never really recovered.
I’m happy to report that since beginning my professional life as an economist, team-work has generally been surprisingly calm and fruitful. So perhaps it was just a school thing.
From an economic theorist’s point of view, the effectiveness of a team ought to depend on the incentives or rewards. People might put less effort in if the reward is split across the whole team. Or, there might be other social effects that mean that people feel bad about letting down other team members.

A recent paper from economists at the University of California set out to investigate. Students were given rewards if they made it to the gym a certain number of times. But there was a catch for one of the groups of students, who were paired up. For this group, the reward each student got depended on how well their team-mate did.

There wasn’t much effect on students who were already good at making it to the gym – the “active” types. But “inactives” – the ones who, before the experiment weren’t so motivated – did a lot better, particularly when they were matched with “active” types. So getting a high-flyer in your team might guilt trip everyone else into trying harder. 

Not that anyone seemed to feel guilty in my Young Enterprise team.

The full paper is here.

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