By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Steps any manager can take to improve team performance

Executive Team (Shutterstock Image)

I have made the point in a number of blog posts that good scholarly studies show that there are techniques available to any manager or leader, including government managers, that are likely to improve an organization's performance. (I first made this point in a 2012 post titled "Productivity and the placebo effect," and most recently revisited the idea last month.)

What these various techniques have in common is that they require no additional budget to implement, nor do they require statutory changes or union negotiations. They are available to any government manager who is committed and dedicated enough to use them.

This post provides yet another example -- from a paper by Jasmine Hu of Notre Dame and Robert Liden of the University of Illinois at Chicago, titled "Making a Difference in the Teamwork: Linking Team Prosocial Motivation to Team Processes and Effectiveness." (For readers of my blog the other week on mission and values, note that I also came across this paper while catching up on my back issues of the Academy of Management Journal. This one appears in the August issue.)

Hu and Liden present a survey-based study and a lab study; each looks at the impact of a team's perceived level of "prosocial motivation."

Prosocial motivation refers to the extent people on a team want the team to do good for others outside the team. That motivation is, of course, especially relevant in the public sector, where our work seeks to benefit others.

In the first study, members of various teams were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, "It is important to our team members to do good for others." At a later date, they were asked to answer questions about the degree of cooperation among team members. Separately, the teams' supervisors rated each team's performance.

The lab study was similar, except that, in solving a problem the team faced, half the teams were primed to think about the importance of their work for helping others while the other half were not. Team performance was measured by independent experts.

And what did those studies find? Teams with higher levels of prosocial motivation performed better, as rated by their supervisors and (in the experiment) by independent experts. According to the statistical analysis in the paper, the reason for better performance is that teams with higher levels of prosocial motivation cooperate better, and better cooperation produces better performance.

There is an additional interesting twist on those findings. The effects of prosocial motivation on performance are particularly high when the level of task interdependence (the extent to which team members need to cooperate to do their jobs) is high. If task interdependence is low -- that is, if team members work more or less independently -- prosocial motivation doesn't help performance very much. When it is high, however, the effect is dramatic.

Any manager can use those findings inside their organizations by providing an environment that encourages prosocial motivation among employees -- for example, by exposing employees to beneficiaries of the organization's work or simply by presenting careful messaging.

Again, if anything, that approach might be easier in government, where an organization's efforts to help others are more obvious than they are for employees making, say, potato chips. And the authors note that such efforts are especially important for managers leading teams whose work requires high levels of interdependence.

I have said this before, and I will say it again here: We have no excuse as government managers not to try these kinds of techniques in our organizations. We can't blame "the system" for preventing us. If we don't use tools and methods that are promising and readily available, we have only ourselves to blame.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 08, 2015 at 11:45 AM


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