Managers Select Work Teams

By: Jeff Grabmeier

Published on April 28, 1998

HOW MANAGERS SELECT WORK TEAMS CAN AFFECT ATTITUDES, PERFORMANCE

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The methods that managers use to assign employees to workplace teams can have significant effects on worker attitudes and even performance, new research shows.

The study found that college students performed better on a simple mathematics task when they thought their assignment to an experimental team was fair.

These results suggest that managers should give more thought to how they create workplace teams, said Howard Klein, co-author of the study and associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“Managers can’t rely just on personal intuition or chance and hope to create effective teams,” Klein said.

Klein conducted the study with Jeffrey Miles, a former doctoral student at Ohio State who is now at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Ca. Their study appears in the current issue of the journal Group and Organization Management.

The research involved 137 undergraduate students enrolled in introductory management courses. Upon arriving at the study session, all participants took a test that measured their ability at a simple number-finding task.

At this point about 30 percent of the participants were excused from the remaining 30 to 45 minutes of the session. For the purpose of the study, those that remained were the “team” members, Klein said. The study imitated situations in which managers must select a subgroup of employees to perform a particular task or serve as a team.

The researchers were interested in how those students assigned to work as a team would react. “In this case, being part of the team wasn’t an advantage, because there was extra work for these students without extra reward,” Klein said. All students -- including those who were excused early -- got the same amount of extra credit in their class for participating in the study. The results would be different in situations in which being assigned to a team is viewed as beneficial.

The researchers assigned team members in four different ways during separate experimental sessions. In one session, team members were chosen at random. In a second session students were also chosen at random, but were told they were selected according to their ability. Specifically, students assigned to the team believed they scored higher on the number-finding test than those who were not assigned. In a third session, personal influence played a role, reflecting decisions based on status or who students knew: students who were in one of the researcher’s classes were allowed to leave without explanation, while the remaining students assigned to the team. In a fourth session, personal influence was also used, but with an explanation: the students in the researcher’s class were allowed to leave with the justification that “their exams are twice as long as the rest of yours.”

The students who were selected to be part of the teams then spent 30 to 45 minutes performing number-finding tasks. All of the students were questioned about their perceptions of the fairness of the team selection process.

The results showed:

Students who were selected randomly believed the process was more fair than did those selected by other means. Ability was seen as the next fairest selection criteria. Personal influence with an explanation was third-most fair, while personal influence without explanation was seen as least fair. Students who were selected using the most fair criteria -- random selection -- also scored highest on the number-finding task. “Even in this somewhat contrived laboratory test, we saw an impact on people’s motivation and performance based on how we formed the teams,” Klein said. “It was clear in this study that people who felt they were treated most fairly also performed better.” Students who were told they were chosen on the basis of ability actually performed worst of all the groups on the number-finding task. One explanation may be that these students thought that if they continued to perform well they might be required to stay even longer, Klein said. The researchers took into account the students’ actual ability before they compared student performances on the tests. In this way, the researchers could attribute performance to the amount of effort students put forth rather than their skill. These results have real-world implications, he said. “People who show a competence in performing certain tasks often end up being assigned more work of that kind. If that isn’t work they find rewarding, then they are being penalized for performing well. This unintentional punishment often keeps people from trying as hard as they could,” Klein explained. As might be expected, students who were excused from participating in the teams thought the selection process -- regardless of which process was used -- was more fair than did students who participated in the teams.

Because this was an exploratory study done in a laboratory, Klein said it is too early to make broad recommendations about the best ways to form workplace teams. However, the results suggest that managers should ensure that their selection process is seen as equitable by employees. “Managers can help ensure that they get the maximum effort and efficiency from workers by carefully choosing how they form teams in their organization.”

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Contact: Howard Klein, (614) 292-0719; Klein.12@osu.edu Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu


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