Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 290
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Helping, or Not Helping

New findings challenge a long-held belief about the contribution of our best employees.

There is a wasted resource in your business. You may think that you�re making full use of it, but you�re not. That�s the pessimistic conclusion of research carried out by Professor Gerben Van der Vegt from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. An athletic metaphor illustrates the problem.

Imagine a basketball team with two star players. It is a joy to watch their skill with ball handling. Their movements are graceful, and the perfect arc the basketball traces as it swooshes through the net is thrilling. The two stars watch each other�s every move and are quick to take advantage of any opportunity the opposing team offers.

There are also three other players on the court whenever the two stars are dazzling the crowd, but there is always disappointment among the fans whenever one of them gets the ball. These other players are best used to block out opposing players and distract them, so the stars can have an easier time getting points on the scoreboard.

Funny thing about teams like this, they often lose.

On your staff, you have a few highly skilled, long-tenured employees. They know where everything is. They have all the pertinent phone numbers memorized. They know a lot of people by their first names who are eager to respond when their help is needed. If an odd situation arises, they�ve seen it before and know what to do. These are your star players, and because of them, things run smoothly regardless of the demands of the day, regardless of the pace of the work. And, yes, it is also a joy to watch them when the work gets hectic.

Working beside your stars are people of lesser skill. They may be younger. They may be new-hires. You imagine that your stars are helping your lesser-skilled people. This is a good thing, you think. Your strong people are helping your weak people, but they�re not helping. Just as the basketball stars do their best to take advantage of the modest contribution lesser-skilled players can make, so also, your workplace stars are doing the same thing.

Van der Vegt formed 96 college students into 24 four-person teams and assigned a difficult, one-year project for each of them to complete. Throughout the year, he measured three factors. First, he measured the perceptions of expertness in the groups. He wanted to know if some group members were recognized to be more skilled than others. He believed that all task groups develop an expertise hierarchy, where some members are regarded as more highly skilled that others, and he found this to be true.

Second, he measured the level of commitment each member of the teams felt for other team members. He believed that people vary in their commitment, feeling more committed to some, less to others. Once again, he found this to be true.

Third, he measured the frequency of helping each member of each group offered to the other team members. Again, he found a pattern. Some people received more help than others.

Finally, he measured the output of the teams at the end of the year. As expected, some teams performed very well, while others did not perform so well. When he crunched all the numbers, he had some sobering conclusions to pass on to us.

The people who got the most help were the ones with the most skill. The people with the least skill got the least help. People with great expertise limited their helping to others with great expertise (recall the two basketball stars helping each other). Everyone in the groups felt their greatest commitment to the most highly skilled group members. The most highly skilled group members felt their greatest commitment to other highly skilled members. People of lesser skill gave help and commitment but received little in return. Finally, for the few teams that did not follow this pattern, their performance exceeded the others.

Could it be that your best employees are working side-by-side with people who could really use some help and aren�t getting it? Are your best people watching their co-workers repeatedly make dumb mistakes and saying nothing? Van der Vegt thinks it�s quite likely, and he has some suggestions for you to correct it.

He believes you should make helping an explicit expectation, and he believes that you should offer incentives to reward it when it occurs. To accomplish this, he mentions mentorship programs that match your stars with your new-hires and offer monetary incentives to encourage helping. He also points out that group-level goals and incentives, like shared rewards, will serve to remind your stars that they depend upon the contribution of all team members. Finally, he suggests that you keep work teams together for long periods. He believes that long experience together will encourage your stars to offer help to those of lesser skills.

Reference: Van der Vegt, Gerben, Stuart Bunderson, and Aad Oosterhof (2006) Expertness Diversity and Interpersonal Helping in Teams: Why Those Who Need the Most Help End Up Getting the Least. Academy of Management Journal, 49 (5), 877-893.

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