Can You Have Collaboration and Excellence?

For the past several decades, collaboration has been a major focus of corporate life. Business strategy has embraced the concept of teamwork. Business leadership has focused on creating opportunities for promoting teamwork. If you’ve worked in an open-plan office, for example, know that its popularity is a result of the emphasis on creating teams rather than individuals in private offices.

Teamwork isn’t always seamless.

But does collaboration coexist with excellence? The best answer may be “not necessarily.” Some studies indicate that teams don’t jump with joy when they include top performers.

First, some teams and departments may see top performers as threats instead of as MVPs. They may fear being perceived as less valuable by other team members or supervisors. They may fear that their own job is in jeopardy. They may be envious. Or insecure.

A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, quoted in Inc., pointed out that some “threatened” employees try to succeed by socially isolating, sabotaging, and denigrating the top performers to the detriment of not only the team but the entire company.

Second, other team members may limit their own efforts and let the top performers do most of the work. The Harvard Business Review, for example, cited a 1990s attempt by Levi Strauss & Co. to create self-managed teams and to link the team efforts to individual members’ compensation. Emotions ran so high against being compensated at the team rate rather than an individual one ran so high that law enforcement had to be called to quell the uproar.

In addition, of course, many companies try to drive teamwork, but still review and compensate employees individually. So the message that teamwork is paramount is not fully clear. (And, as the law enforcement example indicates, not necessarily popular when it is.)

Team members may hinder top performers they find threatening.

Rewarding in Different Ways

The HBR, however, offers a potential third path to businesses wanting to promote teamwork without individual friction. It’s simple. Provide top performers with some kind of non-monetary but very public award. The individual case cited is a Chinese company, and would be familiar to anyone who has ever heard of Employee of the Month.

The award should be given on transparent criteria, to make it clear what behaviors are rewarded and to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

A great benefit of a non-monetary, rotating award is that it can spur employees to greater efforts, but doesn’t seem to arouse strong negative emotions. Of course, that may be because employees don’t see any intrinsic value in the award. Everyone has a chance to win, and everyone’s chance is coming up soon.

Employees rewarded under this system are compensated financially in individual methods, so companies that use it are both rewarding individual performance and contributions to team efforts. In other words, it provides an avenue by which collaboration and excellence can coexist.

Can collaboration and excellent performance coexist? Yes, but only if the relative benefits and drawbacks of each are taken into account, and methods to reward each exist.