New research suggests that when it comes to workforce motivation, women and men are different.
As companies seek to optimize performance among a growing workforce of women, experts in organizational behavior are learning that certain motivational strategies have different effects depending on gender and work setting.
Recent research has suggested that women play better with others in small working groups, and that adding women to a group is a surefire way to boost team collaboration and creativity.
However, in a new study from Washington University in St. Louis, investigators find that is only true when women work on teams that aren’t competing against each other.
Force teams to go head to head and the benefits of a female approach evaporate.
“Intergroup competition is a double-edged sword that ultimately provides an advantage to groups and units composed predominantly or exclusively of men, while hurting the creativity of groups composed of women,” said Markus Baer, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
The study suggests that men benefit creatively from going head-to-head with other groups, while groups of women operate better in less competitive situations. As intergroup competition heats up, men become more creative and women less so.
“Women contributed less and less to the team’s creative output when the competition between teams became cutthroat, and this fall-off was most pronounced in teams composed entirely of women,” Baer said.
The findings are counterintuitive because previous research has shown that women generally are more collaborative than men when working in teams.
“If teams work side by side, women tend to perform better and even outperform men — they’re more creative,” Baer said.
“As soon as you add the element of competition though, the picture changes. Men under those circumstances gel together. They become more interdependent and more collaborative, and women just do the opposite.
“So, what is true for non-competitive circumstances, flips when it gets competitive,” he said.
Researchers believe the study should serve as a caution to managers attempting to use competition among teams to spur creativity. It shows that intense competition can erase the creative advantage that women tend to enjoy over their male counterparts.
“The simple lesson,” Baer said, “is that competition should not be used in all situations to stimulate creativity.”
It’s not going to help women and probably hurts their creativity, so managers should look for different methods of motivation.
“Given that women represent a growing portion of the workforce, using competition as a means to enhance the creativity of groups, regardless of how they are composed, implies that the creative potential available to businesses is seldom fully realized,” the study contends.
Baer emphasizes that nothing in his study suggests women are inherently bad at competition. Rather, it shows that gender stereotypes continue to influence behavior in the workplace.
“It’s not that women stink at competing, it’s that the way society views women and the way we view competition, gender specific, has an impact and that impact is observable in the lab as well as in the field,” Baer said. “It changes behaviors and outcomes.”
The study is published in the journal Organization Science.