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Rice University research calls for more ways to measure virtual employee success

As more and more offices have remote workers, managers need to know how to measure virtual employee success. Getty Images

Managers are always hunting for ways to measure performance. They need to know what's succeeding and what's not so they can make adjustments and improve a work team's output. This has led to countless research that looks at ways to measure and boost employee performance. Indeed, one recent study showed there were more than 130 models and frameworks for measuring team performance in the workplace.

But how we do business has been changing in the last two decades. Communication technology and information sharing increasingly has decentralized the workforce. More and more people are working remotely. Consider telecommuters, online messenger services such as Slack and customer service call centers routing their calls across the world. What forces determine how these virtual teams function?

In a recent study, Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich and Călin Gurău of GSCM-Montpellier Business School looked closely at what motivates remote teams and how to measure what they do. They began with a standard input-mediator-output-input model (IMOI) to measure team characteristics such as size, tenure, communication, strategic consensus and intentions. Then they dove further, including expected team performance, actual team performance and past team performance into the equations. Finally, they analyzed the influence of motivational (desire to perform) and rational (shared goals) dimensions.

To conduct the research, Dholakia, Algesheimer and Gurău analyzed professional computer gaming teams, reasoning that such teams work together in highly competitive environments. The gamers' lack of organizational context, meanwhile, eliminated any bias that could be linked to traditional institutional structures such as culture and goals. There was a downside, however: the gaming teams didn't fully replicate the situation of virtual teams in business organizations.

Still, by choosing the European Electronic Sports League (ESL) the researchers were able to pick from more than half a million teams that play in excess of 4 million matches a year. In the end, 606 teams participated in the study by answering a questionnaire in the course of a year. The teams all had stable structures and specific objectives, strategies and training, just like virtual work teams. Data was also collected from the ESL database and included in the model.

The findings: most studies do not consider expected and actual team performance in their calculations. This is important because research shows a strong link between expectation and performance. Including both sets of results can help managers choose the right steps to enhance team strategy and effectiveness. (The study did not analyze issues such as trust, training, conflict resolution or leadership, areas Dholakia recommends for further research).

The framework devised by Dholakia and his colleagues gives researchers a more precise way to analyze remote or international teamwork. It also could help guide managers in examining a team's cultural diversity, and how that might affect output. In a time when the workplace is growing ever less tangible, Dholakia's model is a sturdy tool to measure what's happening out there.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Without trust, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down, according to this Rice University research. Pexels

While U.S. soldiers battled in Vietnam, inside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly suspicious of those closest to him. The legendary political dealmaker now believed that any opposition to the war was part of a conspiracy against him; aides who questioned his policy might be part of it. According to research using newly available interviews and telephone transcripts, Johnson's distrust may have been triggered by the very experience of being in power.

But how, exactly? In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and a team of colleagues delve deeply into the interaction of power and trust, seeking answers about when and why wielding power degrades leaders' belief in those around them.

The question has deep implications not only in politics, but also in business. "Managers must trust employees' willingness to comply with instructions and keep the company's best interest in mind," Mooijman notes. Without that trust, past research shows, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down. Leaders who successfully craft trusting bonds with their coworkers and employees, on the other hand, are more effective than those who don't.

To learn why leaders might abandon that trust, Mooijman's team set up four studies. First, though, they had to establish a working definition of trust. Trust, they proposed, is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party's actions, based on the expectation that the other party will perform a specific action important to the truster — even without the truster's ability to monitor or control the activity. Essential to a trusting relationship: the expectation of the other party's goodwill, and the willingness to expose themselves to possible exploitation if that goodwill fails.

Whether you work in an indie coffee shop or a giant software company, most workers can name a leader who lacks that kind of trust. Many also have had the good luck of a leader who isn't lacking in that department. The difference between such managers, Mooijman's team found, may be the stability of their power.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to keep power, obviously. In relationships, power holders are able to disregard others' wishes and pursue their own. Within the individual, power boosts self-esteem and encourages behaviors such as expressing amusement and happiness. Less obvious, however, is the effect of fearing a loss of power. Leaders whose power feels unstable experience this physically, with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. They have a heightened awareness of colleagues they perceive as threats, and are more prone to divide coworkers and disrupt their alliances.

When power holders or leaders perceive their power to be unstable, it's that prospect of power loss that erodes their trust in those around them, even helpful and often unsuspecting colleagues. So strong is this effect that it occurs even when the loss of power comes with an economic benefit, Mooijman notes. "Unstable power decreases trust," the team found, "regardless of whether we provided participants with a justification of their unstable position."

To reach their conclusions, Mooijman's team first surveyed 206 participants assembled through Amazon's Mechanical Turk software. Each participant was randomly assigned a power ranking (high or low) and asked to imagine being a VP of sales at a mid-sized firm. Some were told that as part of a productivity initiative they would be reassigned to other divisions. The participants were then asked to rank their perception of their power at their firm and their perception of their job stability there. Regardless of whether their job reassignment was explained or not, the researchers found, the participants who perceived their jobs — that is, their power — to be unstable showed more mistrust of their coworkers.

A final study, a field experiment with real life managers and subordinates, reinforced these findings. Managers in positions of relatively high power who perceived their jobs were unstable were more prone to voice distrust about their subordinates.

While instability is built into political careers, Mooijman's findings have practical implications in other industries. For example, the common practice of moving workers between departments, meant to build insight and productivity, may backfire. Instead of strengthening team spirit, the strategy will likely foment distrust. Similarly, at high levels of power, emphasizing job instability with tactics such as high-stakes, winner-take-all performance metrics might be counterproductive.

Power doesn't always erode trust, the researchers found. Leaders who felt their power was secure didn't show the same level of suspicion as those who felt their roles were insecure. But when power seems fragile, the research revealed, even the most seasoned leaders are prone to abandon trust in their colleagues and see work as a battlefield.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department (organizational behavior division) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.