High-performing teams and the case for self-selection

“…having the right to choose group features fosters co-operation”

Previous research has shown that how well team members get on and connect with one another can lead to higher levels of performance. However, with traditional team set-ups, where people are recruited in, it can take a long time to get to a point where team members gel and build trust. Which is why some new research sparked my curiosity.

Roy Chen and Jie Gong explored whether how a team is formed determines productivity and performance levels. Their research, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, examined the extent to which social connections play a part in helping communication, co-ordination and managing any negative behaviours.

This builds on the work of Barton Hamilton, Jack Nickerson and Hideo Owan who found that diverse teams were more productive than homogenous teams; and Sander Hoogendoorn, Simon Parker and Miriam van Praag who found that diverse ability was linked to increased productivity.

The research

Chen and Gong conducted an experiment run between subjects in a randomised controlled trial. Participants were randomly placed into one of three conditions – (1) randomly assigned into a team; (2) self-selection into a team; and (3) algorithm assigned based on complementary skills.

The researchers gathered data on participants’ pre-existing social networks; performance on the team project itself; and how much time each person in each team contributed to the project.

Teams consisted of no more than four people each. Each team was randomly assigned a project topic which they then had five weeks to complete. Performance was assessed by research assistants who were unaware of how the teams had been formed.

A total of 685 people participated in the experiment. Participants were undergraduate students at a university in Singapore.

The findings

“The group formation process has a significant effect on group performance”

  1. People who were in the self-selection condition tended to sort themselves based on their social connections rather than looking at complementary skills.
  2. Those in the self-selected condition tended to have more social connections but about the same level of complementary skills as those in the randomly-assigned condition.
  3. Those in the self-selected condition performed significantly better on the project than those in the random or algorithm condition. In fact, both self-selected and algorithm performed better than randomly assigned.
  4. Those in the self-selected condition exerted more effort, investing 12.4% more hours than those in the randomly assigned condition.

Implications and solutions

“Allowing employees to form their own work groups can lead to a similar level of productivity as manager-determined groups”

This research offers some useful insight for those organisations looking at ways of decentralising certain functions. There is an interesting suggestion that socially connected members may well work more efficiently together, co-ordinate better and communicate more effectively.

This research builds on the idea of social identity theory where it’s suggested people are less likely to shirk their responsibilities when they feel more attached to a group. In particular, the findings suggest that by allowing people to choose their own teams, levels of attachment, trust and effort increase.

But is this practical for the workplace? Yes, is the short answer. Although when you look at the many articles and posts written about self-selecting teams, a large proportion seem to be in the tech world (with a particular focus on agile teams). However, that’s not to say that other types of organisations couldn’t benefit from enabling self-selecting teams.

  1. This offers an alternative way to set up project teams and task groups. For example, if there are a number of projects within a wider programme, rather than managers pick people to go into teams, why not give people the choice of project teams they can join?
  2. Make use of digital technology. For example, use social platforms like Yammer to help people forge connections with those outside of their main team. Platforms like this can also be a good way to promote projects and enable people to get involved in project teams.
  3. Have a clear and easy-to-understand process for how to enable self-selecting teams. One ecommerce organisation in New Zealand did it successfully and have shared their process (including a helpful diagram).
  4. The self-selection approach could offer an alternative to the more traditional approach to reallocating people during an organisational restructure. Not only could it save time and money, it could also stop you losing your best talent due to drawn out, overly bureaucratic selection processes.
  5. Whereas traditional teams might have a team manager or project manager, self-selecting teams won’t have a manager per se. Instead, someone will take on the role of facilitator. This requires a different skillset, so it’s important the organisation develops people with facilitation skills.

Related posts:

Research reference:

Chen, R. & Gong, J. (2018). Can self-selection create high-performing teams? Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 148, 20-33.

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