Why improving your own performance isn’t always good for the team

Arsene Wenger: anti-doping, but is he right that it automatically improves group performance? Ronnie Macdonald, CC BY

Doping in sports often gives us intriguing insights not only into how we think about right and wrong, but also into our intuitions about performance.

In the aftermath of the latest doping scandal, for instance, Arsene Wenger, eminent football manager of the Arsenal football team, accused UEFA, the governing body of European football, of “basically accepting” doping.

Arsenal had just lost to Dynamo Kiev and one player from the Ukrainian team was caught doping. UEFA did not punish the Ukrainians, only the perpetrator. But surely, one doped player makes a team better and gives an unfair advantage to them all?

This intuition reflects how most of us think about performance in groups, and not only in sports. More of something that enhances individual performance, such as expertise or skill, means more success for the team, and more of something that impairs individual performance, such as sleep deprivation or stress, means less success for the team.

My colleague Nadira Faber and her colleagues challenged this basic assumption in a recent article, suggesting that this is not necessarily the case. Rather, they argue that each individual performance enhancer or performance impairment has the potential to increase or decrease group performance.

Less is less or more is more?

Group performance is perplexing. Consider the following examples.

Patrick Ewing in 1995. Lpdrew, CC BY-SA

Basketball player Patrick Ewing, one of the best to ever play the game of basketball, injured his Achilles tendon during the conference finals in 1999, the final step before reaching the ultimate goal, the NBA finals. The New York Knicks, Ewing’s team, lost their biggest star, and everyone expected them to lose to the Indiana Pacers. Yet, the Knicks went on to win three of the next four games against the Pacers, and advance to the finals. Is this a case of less is more?

Football player Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s biggest star in 2014 and Player of the Year in the Premier League, bit another player during the last World Cup and faced a lengthy ban. Liverpool decided to sell him for £75m and has yet to recover from the loss in performance. Less is less?

West Germany won the Football World Cup in 1990 and then manager Franz Beckenbauer promised that with players joining from East Germany, the German team would not lose in the next decade. The worst decade in German football ensued. So more is less?

And in 2003, billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and invested more than US$100m in players. Chelsea soon became the fifth English team to win back-to-back league championships since the World War II. More is more?

Take drinking …

So how can we understand when more of something good on an individual level such as more competence on the field, more expertise on the panel, or Ritalin before the next budget meeting hurts or helps group performance?

Faber and colleagues showed that making assumptions about the transition from individual level to group level is tricky. Take something obvious such as alcohol consumption. You will not be shocked to learn that alcohol hurts a person’s decision-making and problem-solving skills. However, when the whole group drinks, research has repeatedly found that performance is at the very least not worse than when no one in a group drinks. And in some cases, group-drink might even lead to better decision-making.

Faber and her colleagues highlight mechanisms that counteract individual impairments in groups. When we know that one or more team members are impaired, we are motivated to compensate for the others; motivation and thereby effort increases. Drunken teams take longer time to make decisions, for instance, to improve their decision-making.

Impaired team members might also lead us to monitor the team performance tightly and we will try to improve the coordination in the group, leading to better performances and decisions. So, while you might feel that texting drunk to your boss is a great idea, asking your drunken friends – if conscious – beforehand might help to keep the relationship with your boss intact. An individual impairment does not automatically lead to worse group performance.

Do not drunk text the boss without consulting the team. Drunk by Shutterstock

And the same is true for individual performance enhancers. What is good for my performance might hurt team performance. Faber and colleagues, for instance, speculate that doping has the potential to hurt, rather than improve team performance.

Popping a Ritalin – a “smart drug” – before the next budget meeting might make the next budget worse, and it could depend on the attitudes of the others towards smart drugs.

Pill popping in secret. Smart drug by Shutterstock

People have rather negative views about drugs that improve our thinking and decision-making and smart drugs morally are an unacceptable way to succeed. Hence, knowing that one of the team members took at smart drug might make every group success feel tainted, and our motivation and effort will sink.

As much as it pains me to write it, UEFA might have it right when it comes to doping in football; individual doping might not improve team performance. Rather, the other players could feel like cheats and stop trying. Successful doping in groups then depends either on individual secrecy or an accepting group environment. This also explains why caffeine, a performance enhancer, most likely improves team performance; the positive effects of caffeine on mood and motivation are not tainted by feelings of cheating.

Scientists have something in common with Wenger, and unfortunately, it is not his salary. Rather, it is the intuition that if one thing is good for the individual, it is good for the group, and if it is bad for the individual, it is bad for the group. So when we communicate our findings or make policy recommendations, we often base the implications on the assumption that individual and group performance are the same.

Policy suggestions based on research on sleep deprivation, for instance, rarely consider the transition from individual to group. In education, for example, just because five out of ten students in a class are sleep deprived, does not mean that this impairs the learning in the class room. Sleep deprivation still bears risks for the individual, but might bear less risk for society, since most of the important decisions are made in teams; teams that can compensate for the negative effects on performance.


In conjunction with Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog

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