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Rice University research shows what your company can learn from gamers about teamwork

There's no "I" in team, but getting your coworkers on the same "we" perspective can be tough. Here's why it's important, according to Rice University's research. Pexels

You just got a promotion — along with a brand-new work team whose members barely speak to one another. But first-rate cooperation is essential if you're going to deliver for your client. So you decide to spend a month getting to know each of your workers.

One is competent but bitter, frustrated by years of small mistakes by a colleague, mistakes that add to her own workload. Another, the one making the mistakes, seems so distracted he may as well be working at another company. Others have their own quirks. And to make matters worse, another department is set to merge its employees with your creaky, cranky team in a few months. How are you going to understand all these individuals, much less get them into shape as a unit?

For many managers, training and reading can help provide guidance. Others may hire an outside consultant and resort to team-building activities. But where does that outside expertise — not to mention training and reading — come from? It's based on academic research.

Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich and Richard P. Bagozzi of the University of Michigan are among the scholars updating what we know about the dynamics of group decisions. Starting with classic group behavior theory, the scholars developed a series of sociologically-based models for analyzing small teams.

To better understand the existing shared intentions and attachment between teammates, Dholakia and his colleagues used a novel set of questions to survey 277 teams of computer gamers, each comprised of three people. They ran the survey responses through variations of a classic model called the Key Informant, which depends on the observations of group members about the social relationships inside a group.

Next, the researchers applied a sociological theory called Plural Subject Theory, focused on what's known as "we-attitude." That's exactly what it sounds like: verbally and actively treating an endeavor as a group project.

The core of this theory, the notion that successful teams frequently use collective pronouns when they discuss themselves and cognitively conceive of themselves as "we," has been heavily studied. Groups whose members think in terms of "we" act more cohesively and are measurably more committed to collectively reaching their goal.

To enhance the way these attitudes are measured, Dholakia created multiple variations of a new model. These differ from previous models because they include information not just from a "key informant," but from every member of a group. The researcher asks group members questions about themselves, their impressions of others in the group, their impressions about how others in the group think of each member and impressions about the group as a whole. This longer, more elaborate approach offers fresh insights about a group's shared consciousness — which provides a valuable new research outcome.

The professors found that this revision of classic key informant model generally worked the best of the various group-analysis models they tested — even improving on the original key informant approach. Future researchers, Dholakia notes, should consider the context of the team situation to decide which configuration of members is best to analyze.

So the next time you find yourself nonplussed by a chaotic group dynamic at work, remember you are in time-honored company — and that help is out there. By updating the key informant model, Dholakia and his colleagues have added to the analytical toolbox something that can help whip that team into shape. Whether it's an army of accountants or a network of hospital workers, Dholakia writes, the first step to creating a real team is analyzing which intentions they truly share.

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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.

Family firms aren't investing in research and development — but why? Getty Images

Family firms are publicly traded companies in which family members own at least 20 percent of the voting stock, and at least two board members belong to the family. For obvious reasons, the central principals in these firms tend to have a longer view than principals in non-family firms. Yet family firms invest less in research and development (R&D) in technology firms than their non-family counterparts. Since investments in R&D are stakes in the future, why this disparity?

Robert E. Hoskisson, a management professor at Rice Business, joined several colleagues to answer this question. Refining a sociological theory called the behavioral agency model (BAM), the researchers defined family-firm decisions as "mixed gambles" — that is, decisions that could result in either gains or losses.

Because success in high technology relies so much on innovation, it's especially puzzling when such a family owned business underinvests in R&D. So Hoskisson and his colleagues focused on the paradox of family firms in high tech.

According to previous research, family owners weigh both economic and non-economic factors when making business decisions. Hoskisson and his team labeled these non-economic factors socioemotional wealth (SEW). SEW can include family prestige through identifying with and controlling a business, emotional attachment to the firm or the legacy of a multigenerational link to the firm.

That intangible wealth (SEW) explained some of the families' R&D choices. While investment in R&D may lower future financial risk, it can threaten other resources the family holds dear. Expanded R&D spending, for instance, is linked with competitiveness. At the same time, it is associated with less family control. That's because to invest more in R&D, businesses typically need more external capital and expertise. So when a family firm underinvests in R&D, it may in fact be protecting its socioemotional wealth.

To further understand these dynamics, the researchers looked at three factors that they expected would raise families' R&D spending to levels more like non-family counterparts.

The first factor was corporate governance. As predicted, the researchers found that family firms with a higher percentage of institutional investors invested in R&D at levels more like those of non-family firms. The institutional investors naturally prioritized economic benefits far more than the founding family's legacy wealth (SEW).

The researchers also analyzed corporate strategy. Family firms, they found, invested more in R&D when it might be applied to related products or markets. Even families bent on preserving non-economic wealth could be lured by a big economic payoff, and related business are easier to control because they are closer to the family legacy business expertise.

Finally, Hoskisson and his colleagues looked at performance. When a family firm's performance lagged behind that of competitors, they reasoned, the owners would spend more on R&D. A higher percentage of institutional investors, the team theorized, would magnify this effect. Interestingly, the primary data (from 2004 to 2009) failed to support this hypothesis, while an alternative data set (from 1994 to 2002) confirmed it.

Further research, the investigators wrote, could shed useful light on this puzzle. They also encouraged study of how family firms conduct mergers and acquisitions. After all, while families can seem inscrutable from the outside, most run on some kind of economic system. The currency just includes more than money.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.