The Problem with Rewarding Individual Performers

January 30, 2019
Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer in Harvard Business Review
Jay Van Bavel The Problem with Rewarding Individual Performers

In 1968, The Ohio State Buckeyes football team started one of the most cherished traditions in American sports. According to team legend, a member of the coaching staff proposed an idea to motivate the players. After each game, the coaches would reward the best players with small stickers resembling buckeye leaves to place on their helmets. The staff reasoned that rewarding stellar individual performances would provide the right incentive to excel. The Buckeyes won the national championship that year, and football teams around the country have copied the tradition of rewarding individual excellence.

But by 2001, the once-dominant Buckeyes had slipped into mediocrity. When Jim Tressel was hired to coach the team, he completely revamped how players earned a buckeye. Instead of rewarding a player for scoring a touchdown, for instance, every player on the offensive unit would get a sticker if the team scored more than 24 points. And the coaching staff gave every player on the team a sticker after each win. Favoring teamwork over individual performance paid off almost immediately—the team not only won a national championship the following year, but the Buckeyes have been one of the most successful teams in the country ever since and are a threat to win the National Championship again this year.

Although leaders are concerned with collective success, most organizations—from sports teams to universities to global companies—still focus on rewarding individual performance. The majority of Fortune 500 companies reward the most productive individuals, not the most effective groups or indispensable group members. We believe that leaders at these organizations are overlooking something fundamental about human nature—our tribalism.

Human beings evolved in groups, and most of us still work in groups every day. Our affinity for groups is wired deeply into our basic biology. Indeed, humans are unique among primates in that we readily cooperate with in-group members–even if they are completely unknown to us. This is why sports fans can show up to a stadium and immediately share common purpose with 100,000 complete strangers. Even more striking, research in our labs has found that the simple act of joining a group can produce a dramatic influence on brain function and behavior. At the mere flip of a coin, people readily befriend and place their trust in fellow in-group members. And our research has found that creating mixed-race groups can override implicit racial bias. Group identification is one ingredient that can bring strangers together.

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