Innovation is a team sport, but new research shows how easily we forget that unless it’s right in our faces.
Rick Larrick, a professor of management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, found we tend to give individuals the creative credit for team innovation, even when we’re told a team was responsible. Only seeing a photo of the team was enough to break the spell.
“It’s striking how little people adjust for the role of a team unless they’re hit over the head with the image of a team,” Larrick said.
The research confirms hogging the spotlight can benefit the individual – but it suggests firms set themselves up for uncertainty if their brand is too closely associated with an individual, such as a CEO. Individuals leave firms, or fall from grace, or have health problems, but firms expect to endure.
“Any time that you have so much of a company’s success tied up in the perceived success of a single individual,” Larrick said, “there’s a risk.”
It’s a form of the fundamental attribution error: the very human tendency to give individuals all the credit for their success when other factors played a role. Larrick said people have a general tendency to focus on a subset of information, and not consider what they might be missing.
"You’ve got to pay attention to both the situation and the individual."
“When we try to explain performance for an individual, the core question is whether we are ignoring the circumstances that foster individual success,” Larrick said. “You’ve got to pay attention to both the situation and the individual to figure out what credit should actually go to the individual.”
The Moneyball revolution in major league baseball, Larrick said, is one area in which this error has been recognized. For many years, free agents were often pursued for their batting prowess, even though performance can be heavily influenced by the ballpark you play in. A short distance to the leftfield bleachers, for example, can make a right handed player a great home run hitter. As a result, teams overpaid for past success that was more attributable to the environment than the player’s ability.
“In this new research, we found the misperception can also arise from the organizational structure you’re in – whether you’re working alone or with others,” Larrick said. “Perceivers make the same mistake with the social space – ignoring the contributions of helpful team members – as they do with the physical space in baseball.”
The new research, There’s No Team in I: How Observers Perceive Individual Creativity in a Team Setting, is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Larrick worked with Fuqua PhD student Min Kay and Devon Proudfoot of Cornell University.
The researchers had 672 participants read about Jonathan Ive, head of the design team that helped create many of Apple’s most innovative products. All participants were told the products were the result of a team effort. Then they were shown picture of Ives alone or with the team.
“He was seen as more creative if he was shown alone than with the team,” Larrick said.
In another study of 571 managers, some were told about an individual who designed a logo, while others were told the logo was designed by a team. When participants were shown a picture of one member of the team alone, that team member was considered as creative as the person who worked alone.
"(I)f you want to give a team credit for the success then you need to remember to make them visible.”
“It’s as if the team doesn’t exist unless they are actually seen,” Larrick said. “People had to be reminded of that visually so that they really pay attention to it and adjust for it. If they don’t, the individual gets a lot of credit.”
Larrick said the research confirms taking the spotlight is an effective strategy for individuals. However, taking the spotlight can also be a poor leadership decision.
“There’s a morale benefit to sharing credit,” he said. “If you’re a leader, this research shows you it’s easy to hog the spotlight accidentally, and if you want to give a team credit for the success then you need to remember to make them visible.”
It is also a trap Larrick said managers need to avoid when evaluating employees.
“We so strongly associate the product with the presenter of the product,” he said, “we may neglect important people who also contributed.”
Firms face a strategic choice between emphasizing an individual or a team when presenting creative products to the larger market, Larrick said.
“Having an organization’s success associated so closely with a single individual may be good for branding purposes but it sets up the organization as a whole for a lack of faith that the organization has a good system to carry on without them,” Larrick said. “If you want people to have faith in a team that can sustain success over time even with potential turnover, that’s when you want to call attention to it being a team output that is more about process and culture than one person.”