Before You Give Me A Hand, Be Sure I Need It

Topic: Teams
Publication: The Journal of Applied Psychology (2008)
Article: Harmful help: the costs of backing-up behavior in teams.
Blogger: Rob Stilson

Warning! The findings of this study have the potential to blow your mind if you follow research on teams.

OK, maybe not “The Matrix blow your mind,” but I did say “whoa” after reading the implications of the study. This research group delved into the dark side of backing-up behavior and came across some interesting and useful findings.

First things first, backing-up behavior is the degree to which teammates help each other perform their roles in a team.

Typically, it is accepted that backing-up behavior = good thing. In this study, the authors messed around with the team member work distribution of 4-person teams during a computer task (the DDD). What they found indicated that while backing-up behavior does help when the work load is unevenly distributed to one team member, this same helpful behavior may lead to team members slacking on their own responsibilities if the work load is even, thus hurting overall team performance. So don’t blindly train team members to automatically back each other up. Instead, train them to recognize uneven workload distributions and to throw out a rope when necessary.

Now, we move to a second finding that will make you want to place your palms just above your eyebrows and move them in circles (I prefer inward circles). Even when a team does the right thing and helps out their overwhelmed teammate, the teammate on the receiving end of the rope may now be less motivated to give the task their best effort (Yeah, aren’t teams fun!) So in conclusion, if your teammate is about to slip a disk from carrying the team, help her out; if she seems to have slipped into screen saver mode and is finding her groove, just keep doing what you’re doing. The de-motivating aspect of receiving help from your teammates begs for more research, so stay tuned…

Barnes, C. M., Hollenbeck, J. R., Wagner, D. T., DeRue, D. S., Nahrgang, J. D., and Schwind, K. M. (2008) Harmful help: the costs of backing-up behavior in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(3), 529-539.