Whether you work in a formal corporate environment or a laid-back creative one, most of us experience some degree of tension between individual and group success. As we work, we want our teams and companies to do well and look good. Yet, when it’s time for recognition, we also want people to notice our own accomplishments. Striking the wrong balance between individual and group success can lead to several sub-optimal motivational outcomes. Specifically, people may not engage and turn in their best work if they feel like their contributions are either undervalued or under-recognized.
It’s easy to think about this in terms of formal corporations, but the tension exists in all lines of work where there is a team. In Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow, Jon Stewart notes about writing content for The Daily Show:
It’s so important to remove preciousness and ownership. You have to invest everybody in the success of the show, and to let them feel good about their contribution to it without becoming the sole proprietor of a joke. There has to be an understanding that that may be a great joke, but it might not serve the larger intention, or the narrative, of the show. You have to make sure that everybody feels invested without feeling that type of ownership.
In Stewart’s example, the group’s success sometimes depends on individual contributors being able to cut their own jokes in favor of ones that better support the episode. The management challenge is creating an environment where individuals strategically downplaying their contributions doesn’t mean they are less successful members of the team. Boosting the group does not mean individual failure.
On the flip side, there is rewarding individual contributions when they support group goals. Compensation structure is one way managers influence how comfortable and invested employees are in collaborative production (and letting the group look good over the individual). For example, structuring a bonus program so that teammates are competitive with one another–a fixed budget is divided among team members based on performance such that an increase in one person’s bonus means a decrease in someone else’s–will limit people’s interest in collaboration. Here, if the team looks good but the person does not, the individual employee loses a bonus opportunity. If a manager wants to promote collaboration, individual bonus anchor points that do not fluctuate based on teammates’ accomplishments would be more effective.
Why do these team vs. individual dynamics happen?
There are a lot of reasons, but a key one from classic organizational psychology has to do with our need to see how our personal work fits in a meaningful way into a larger whole. Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model emphasizes that people need to see their work as somehow significant to remain engaged over time. I’d add from self-determination theory that people also need to feel some autonomy in how they accomplish their work and a sense of growth from doing it in order to maintain motivation,
What can we do about it?
We can provide people with a sense that they have contributed to a larger whole without necessarily raising individual success above the group’s. Sometimes exposing the process through which a final product comes to be can accomplish this; an engineer who works on manufacturing equipment should understand how her job supports the product that ultimately rolls off the line. In a more creative environment, it might be about seeing how your rejected ideas shaped the eventual solution. For Daily Show writers, it likely helped motivation to know that jokes that didn’t make the cut started conversation down an eventually successful path.
A second key management activity is aligning incentive structures as much as possible to desired work styles. If individual competition is key to success, then zero-sum rewards might be appropriate. If, like most workplaces, some degree of collaboration is more effective, then people should be able to receive recognition and rewards for group success as well as individual success.
Third, how work is accomplished gives people opportunities to exercise their needs for autonomy and competence. If people are able to make meaningful choices about how to execute their work and tackle tasks that are optimally challenging, it will help the work feel more engaging separately from how success is recognized.
It’s not easy.
By no means do I think workplace motivation and balancing individual and team successes are easy tasks. Managers at every level are subject to competing demands from within and without the organization. They may lack tools and resources to support task significance and rewards alignment; for example, they may not be able to influence compensation structures. A first step for managers might be offering the people they manage some choices about how to approach their goals and feedback that helps clarify the effects of their efforts. For employees, asking to try new approaches and seeking feedback on one’s work could help.
What I really hope is that people who are designing organizational structure or who sit at the level where they can influence the organization’s design think carefully about how their choices will affect employee engagement and output over time. If you do have the power to determine reward systems (financial or otherwise), just remember that everyone wants to be a meaningful part of the larger whole in some form. If you can recognize that, you’re partway there.