Women tend to work well in teams, but don’t try pitting those teams against each other. It probably won’t end well.
That’s the message from a recent study out of Washington University in St. Louis, which found that engaging workplace teams in competition is a surefire way to hurt creativity of the teams that are composed mostly or entirely of women. On the flip side, competition provides a creative advantage to majority male or male-only teams.
The study, led by professor Markus Baer, pitted teams of same-sex and mixed gender teams against each other in a lab setting, promising cash to the teams that were the top performers. Baer’s data was boosted by another study, led by a colleague, examining real-life team dynamics at an oil and gas company.
“Groups composed of all women or majority women tend to do better when there’s an absence of competition. When you introduce competition, those teams tend to fare worse,” says Baer. “The opposite happens for men. Once you introduce competition for them, they get excited, start to gel together.”
The study is a reminder that tactics which can get people to work more efficiently don’t always have positive results when it comes to creativity. With such a gender disparity in the study outcome, employers would do well to nix most team competitions, especially if they are high-stakes.
It’s possible, though, that women can perform well in competition with non-monetary incentives–if they’re competing for a good cause, for example. Research has shown that women may be more likely to compete effectively when it’s on behalf of others.
Baer, who studies ways to make the workplace more conducive to creativity, hopes to experiment with methods that combine collaboration and competition in the future.
“I don’t want to suggest women are inherently less competitive,” says Baer. “I think a lot of it is either social roles that we adopt to in education or interactions. They guide the way we think about ourselves and others.”