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Illustration: Kagan McLeod

A recent study of organizational productivity from researchers at the the Universities of Leicester, Sydney and Western Sydney found that bonuses are more effective when awarded to teams instead of individuals. The study had an unlikely inspiration: hens.

In 2009, an animal breeder named William Muir from Purdue University published his findings on the selective breedings of hens to increase egg production. Muir first selected the most productive hen from each cage for breeding—a common practice in the industry. Then he chose the most productive cages overall, and used all the hens from those cages to procreate the next generation of hens.

The first selection technique produced cages of hostile “mean, bad birds,” with short life spans due to constant fighting, while the second resulted in “kind, friendly chickens” with normal life spans and better quality eggs.

Muir’s experiment inspired the British and Australian researchers to test a similar approach to organizational productivity. What they found was that like chicken farmers, companies thrive or fall based on the performance of their teams, not any single employee.

Group rewards generate more co-operative, better-performing teams and individuals than individual ones. Importantly, the best and the worst performers both did better work in a group bonus system.

Poor performers, who would typically be at risk of being fired under individual reward systems, were found to be “essential to the effective functioning of the group,” according to the researchers, who refer to them as ‘self-sacrificers.’ Why? They’re the ones who put aside their own work to help colleagues in need. If they get sacked, the whole group falls apart.

“Group rewards generate the top-performing individuals because of supportive group ecology, a mix of strategies that supports and sustains them,” concluded the researchers. “[I]ndividual rewards produce non-cooperative groups of individuals bent on exploiting each other.”

This article is from the February 2016 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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Do your experiences concur with the study’s findings? Do you reward employees collectively or individually? Let us know by commenting below.

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