Can money detract from teamwork?

Coins via freefoto.comGuy Kawasaki highlights a fascinating study conducted by the psychologist Kathleen Vohs. Vohs performed experiments in which, prior to being assigned certain collaborative activities, some participants were cued to think about money while other participants were not prompted to think about money. The results suggest that thinking of money makes individuals less likely to work with others.

In one experiment, the researchers gave volunteers a difficult puzzle and told them to ask for help at any time. People who had been reminded of money waited nearly 70% longer to seek help than those who hadn’t. People cued to think of money also spent only half as much time, on average, assisting another person who asked for their help with a word problem and picked up fewer pencils for someone who’d dropped them.

The antisocial behavior didn’t end there. Volunteers reminded of money preferred working alone even if sharing the task with a co-worker resulted in substantially less work.

Taken together, Vohs says, the findings suggest that thinking of money puts people in a frame of mind in which they don’t want to depend on others and don’t want others to depend on them.

If merely thinking about money can make individuals less likely to work with others, what implications do these findings have for teams in business settings? I have a couple of suppositions.

One possible implication is that financial incentives may have the unintended consequence of decreasing an individual’s preference for teamwork. To guard against this result, organizations can structure incentives to reward the entire team, thereby avoiding the need for team members to compete for zero-sum bonuses.

Another implication is the need for teams to downplay money altogether, so that team members can “think” mostly about the team’s objectives. Although entirely eliminating thoughts of money is unrealistic, managers can recognize the effects highlighted in the study and attempt to de-emphasize money relative to team goals.

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3 Responses to Can money detract from teamwork?

  1. Does money make the world go

    Are you motivated by money? Or by doing what is necessary?

    Interesting post by Blaine via Guy Kawaski who references a study that reveals that thinking of money makes individuals less likely to work with others.

    The Joyful Jubilant Learning Net…

  2. ann michael says:

    My personal experience completely supports this!

    Ironically, an organization makes more money and works more effectively when people work together and yet they create (often unknowingly) the incentives and boundaries (departments, wholly own subsidiaries, etc.) that encourage people to work against each other.

    Here’s a great policy I’ve recently come across:

    Division X gets 50% of the revenue when any other division sells something in to their target market. The Division selling the product gets the other 50% but also gets 100% of the cost. Sales to this market segment are extremely lucrative overall for the company and divisions other than X often find themselves able to make significant (high revenue) sales – but they hesitate – why?

    The deals are often a loss on their books (if the cost of deal is 50% of revenue or more – it’s break even or a loss). Why would a company create an incentive like this?

  3. Ann – I think it would be more appropriate to call that a “disincentive” program!

    I know these sorts of policies are well intentioned. They often come from a series of negotiations in which senior management attempts to satisfy multiple internal groups. Issues of turf protection and even what seems like fairness become the rationale.

    Then a little time passes and someone comes along from outside asking why the seemingly counter-productive policy exists. “Er… uh… well, that’s a good question. It’s just the way we do it.”

    Fresh eyes make a big difference. The real trick for most of us is to find fresh eyes for examining our own organizations.

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