Teamwork tools: Study examines the keys to successful collaborations

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Need to work in cahoots with others in the office in order to get a project done? It may pay off in the end to grab coffee or lunch with colleagues occasionally and get to know them better. While plenty of managers have tried everything under the sun to get their teams to work together efficiently and without conflict, a recent study finds that successful teamwork is driven by the ability to choose one’s partners and a strong familiarity with one another.

Researchers at Ohio State University set out to find out the key factors behind a successful collaboration. Of course, while that requires strong cooperation among peers, study co-author and OSU assistant professor of sociology David Melamed says humans working together has long been a bit of a mystery: “From an evolutionary perspective, cooperation shouldn’t exist between people – you always do better by not cooperating because then people can’t rip you off or take advantage of you,” he explains in a university release. “Especially in a one-time interaction, it’s essentially paying a cost for someone else to benefit, and researchers have been working for a long time to understand why people evolved to work together.”

Melamed recruited 810 people online to participate in his study. Participants played in multiple computer games among rotating groups of about 25 in which they were given 1,000 monetary units — or about one dollar in real life, which they could actually keep. If one player paid another 50 units, the receiver would actually get 100 units.

“So, if you essentially agreed to give up five cents, someone else gained 10 cents,” says Melamed.

The 16-round games attempted to group the players in ways that mimic real human social circles, with some people assigned to random networks, and others to “clustered networks,” where players had multiple connections within the group. Networks were also considered either static and some dynamic. A static social network entailed interacting with partners assigned to them. A dynamic network allowed participants to call it quits with one partner and join up with another. Some of the games also listed each player’s willingness or reluctance to share units, to see if others would collaborate with players based on reputation.

Reputation had been identified in prior research as a factor in one’s likeliness to partner with someone, but surprisingly, it didn’t matter in this experiment. Here, collaboration rates were highest when partners could drop one another and work with others instead.

“What really seems to matter is the ability to alter the structure of a network,” explains Melamed. “And the pattern of relationships also made a difference. Those in a known cluster with multiple connections collaborated more, which seems intuitive if you think about how we interact in the real world.”

Melamed notes the results could have implications not just in offices, but in more high-pressure workplaces — such as the battlefield. Leaders could ultimately change the way they have employees work together based on these key attributes to teamwork.

The full study was published January 16, 2018 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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