They say two heads are better than one, but a recent study led by associate professor of organizational behavior Markus Baer at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School suggests the success of a brainstorming session may depend on whether you’re a man or a woman.
While it’s typically assumed women are more collaborative than men when working in teams, it appears women’s advantage is only effective in non-competitive environments. Forcing teams to go head-to-head results in greater creative output from men, but causes women to shut down and contribute less. The more intense and cut-throat the competition, the less women contribute.
Baer says gender stereotypes may play a role in women losing their edge in competitive environments. “The same stereotypes that suggest that women are very collaborative suggest that they are less likely to do well under competition,” he says. “If women think of themselves as being less competitive and assume that the world thinks they shouldn’t perform as well [in competition], they’re less engaged in the activity because the belief is ‘this is not what we’re good at, this is not what other people expect us to be good at’ so they lose a bit of their mojo.”
Men, on the other hand, have been taught to thrive under competition, causing them to react more positively when a competitive element is introduced to a creative brainstorming session. Women simply don’t see competition as motivating, so they don’t take it as seriously as men.
This doesn’t mean competition has to completely be eliminated from workplaces. In fact, Baer says a little friendly competition can be a great way to promote teamwork and bring people together. Competitions can even be fun. However, he suggests companies that want to incorporate the element of competition in a gender-friendly way may need to alter the way competitions are implemented.
“The way we initially thought of designing competitions was inspired by the way we think about the business world, and it’s mostly influenced by male stereotypes,” he says. Avoiding the negative characteristics of competition that cause women to participate less while maintaining competition’s positive attributes means altering the definition of competition from a cut-throat climate to the more relaxed, team-friendly type.
To do this, Baer offers three suggestions:
1. Multiple-dimension competitions. While competitions that pit teams against one another and result in only one winner put women at a disadvantage, Baer says competitions that offer multiple prizes on multiple dimensions may be more female-friendly. He suggests providing prizes for the most innovative solution and the most collaborative team, for example.
2. Inter-team collaboration. While in cut-throat competition, teams typically withhold information from one another, are discouraged from sharing ideas and may even undermine each other in an effort to win, providing opportunities for cross-team collaboration may help encourage women to participate. The way to incentivize cross-collaboration, Baer says, is to provide recognition to teams who assist others. If one team is able to advance in their solution thanks to input from another team, providing recognition to the supportive team helps to eliminate that raw competitiveness that works against women.
3. Progressive tournaments. Breaking down the competition into steps and providing rewards along the way can help to make the competitive environment more appealing to women. Rather than having one large prize, provide several smaller prizes for different intervals.