Carl H. Lindner College of BusinessCarl H. Lindner College of BusinessUniversity of Cincinnati

Carl H. Lindner College of Business

Building a Dream Team

Debashis Pal explores team dynamics.

Leaders of all types—whether business managers, college professors or athletic coaches—struggle with the challenges of motivating their teams and rewarding team members. Looking at the view from the other end of the carrot (or the stick), many people have been on teams where one member didn’t quite pull his share of the load. Then when it’s time to hand out the awards or the grades, frictions develop and can destroy team cohesion and efficacy.

This teamwork tension between the goal of the individual versus the goal of the team interests Debashis Pal. Pal, professor of economics in the Department of Economics in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business, studies team productivity, especially as it relates to reward structures.

“I look at how we interact with each other,” says Pal. “For the supervisor of a team: do the team members help each other or do they sabotage each other’s work?”

Pal describes an example: a basketball game, right at the buzzer.

“One player has the ball,” Pal says. “Does he try to shoot the ball? Or does he pass it to the other player who is waiting at the right spot who has a better chance of shooting and making the basket?”

Pal explains that for the original player, there are trade-offs; if he tries to shoot the basket he has a lower chance of making the shot, so his team might lose. But if he can get the basket, the credit will go to him. If he passes it to the other player who is in a better position, the team might win the game. But he might not get much credit.

“The most credit goes to the player who actually scores the basket,” says Pal. “Then the player might think, ‘Wait: you know what, I get a million dollars for scoring this basket—even if the team loses.’ Now what kind of management scenarios are similar—where they are rewarding very highly for the basket?”

Pal likens this to the typical classroom setting when teams of students receive the same grade for each project.

“The typical complaint we hear is ‘I did most of the work and the other student didn’t do very much,’” Pal says. “The other side of the problem is that to counter this, professors try to micromanage.” Faculty who get caught in this trap have students turn their papers in through Google Docs so that they can keep tabs on what each student is doing throughout each step of the paper. Pal points out that if the faculty member is tracking the work this closely, students are less apt to help each other out.

In the classroom, at work or in the field, Pal says, “We are studying under what conditions [team members] might help each other and under what conditions they might sabotage each other. And also what is the supervisor or professor or manager doing that might influence the behavior of the workers or the students or the players?”

In their model, Pal and his colleagues, David Sappington (University of Florida) and Arup Bose (Indian Statistical Institute), found that if the skills and talents of the team members were approximately comparable, then there was no point in micromanaging. Micromanagement took away their motivation. “In fact, that might motivate them to sabotage each other more,” Pal adds.

On the other hand, if team members’ skill sets are quite different, then managing with a heavier hand and providing the team unequal rewards at the end may be the best strategy.

Pal noted in his paper, “Equal Pay for Unequal Work: Limiting Sabotage in Teams,” Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, that sabotage among team members or co-workers can arise if they feel that by sabotaging  another, their relative performance appears enhanced. This sabotage can be prevented, Pal and his co-authors posited, if the principal authority makes it clear that all members will receive equal pay and equal rewards.

“Essentially we are investigating the conventional wisdom that’s going around the country now about everything being based on merit: performance-based budgeting,” says Pal. “The teacher gets paid based on the grades of the students; the salesperson gets paid based on commissions.” Pal notes this type of reward structure might backfire. “It takes away the team spirit of helping each other and people might actually sabotage other team members.”

In his research, Pal also examines individuals’ behaviors in organizations as well as entrepreneurial activities. He does not consult directly with organizations, however, preferring to share his insights through his publications.

“I like teaching,” he says with a smile. Pal is the director of undergraduate studies for the economics department. “I feel fortunate that I can work as a teacher in this organization. The Lindner College of Business undergraduate program is fantastic: they do such a marvelous job. I get to spend a lot of time mentoring students and helping them out.”


Pal’s research reveals strategies for building successful teams:

  • Resist the temptation of developing a high-powered reward structure.
  • Develop a reward structure based on the comparative abilities of the team. Try to get individuals who are similar in abilities, who are all talented and hard working.
  • Build teams based on the effort level of the team members, which is more crucial than their skill areas, to ensure motivation and productivity stay high.
  • Avoid “free riders.” In economics, “free riders” are known as those who consume a resource without paying for it, or pay less than the full cost of its production. When a person free-rides along on the work of others, it’s very costly to management and a detriment to the team.
  • Don’t micromanage a team that is equally talented and functioning well.