I recently came across a collaborative research paper that caught my eye. The authors posed an intriguing question: Can business learn anything from the world of professional basketball when it comes to worker productivity?
I was hoping to find out that I’d be a better worker if the lights were dimmed and they played pump-up music every time I walked into my office. Or that my creative output would double if we hired an assistant to hand me a Gatorade every time I was parched.
Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll have to keep up my regular trips to the water cooler. But the study, co-authored by Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University, Josh Kinsler of the University of Georgia, and Joseph Price of Brigham Young University, did reveal some research that could help me become a more productive, and possibly better compensated, employee.
The authors used novel and complex statistical analyses to determine how big of an impact NBA players have on their team as a whole. Traditionally, fans and media alike have considered the highest scoring players to be the most valuable, and the most deserving of astronomical salaries. Scoring was considered the most important skill, so it was assumed that gifted shooters like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony determined the fate of a team.
Their study attempts to turn that idea on its head, largely by quantifying what social scientists call “spillover.” This is the idea that workplace productivity can spillover from one employee to another, often in ways that are intangible and hard to measure.
Luckily, the NBA presents an environment where spillover can be measured. The authors studied data for more than 650 NBA players from 2006 to 2010 to see whether their teams performed better or worse when they were on the court.
When player statistics and salaries are examined through that lens, the picture it paints is not quite what your average basketball viewer would imagine. In fact, the results should make all the unsung heroes in offices everywhere stand up and cheer.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
To sum it up, the players who were most valuable to their teams were not the flashy, high-scoring types. Once spillover was accounted for, notoriously gifted but selfish scorers such as Kobe Bryant plummeted down in the player rankings. I’m from Los Angeles, where I think I can be legally imprisoned for denigrating the Almighty Kobe — but the numbers speak for themselves.
So, who ends up looking pretty good under the spillover microscope? Team players. The guys who set up their teammates for shots, grab the tough rebounds, and play solid defense. These guys — like Deron Williams on the Mavericks, for example – aren’t usually the ones who end up shooting State Farm commercials. But according to the paper, they have a huge impact on their team’s success. We’re talking about a 63% improvement in team success when a high spillover player is substituted in for the standard player.
While that’s fascinating to a sports nerd like myself, things get interesting when you start envisioning how this knowledge can be applied to the business world as a whole.
The Big Data Revolution
“Big Data” is a term you’ve probably heard. It refers to the idea that almost every industry collects vast amounts of data, and that eventually computer algorithms are going to be able to find trends and relevant information by parsing through all of it. The authors realize that “peer effects, particularly heterogeneous peer effects, are notoriously difficult to measure, in part because of the data requirements.” But Big Data is set to change all that.
Peruse a job board in Silicon Valley, and it seems like half the startups are committed to doing such data mining. The full impact of a team-first employee is currently hard to measure, but soon that will no longer be the case. The Big Data revolution should result in fair compensation for workers who provide the most value to the team as a whole, regardless of each individual’s perceived productivity.
As with basketball players, money should start flowing not only to the one closing the deal, but to the people who helped it happen along the way. As the authors of the paper put it, “Given the large role spillovers play in team production, we would expect significant returns in the labor market to the ability to help others.”
The Skills of the Future
I, for one, await the data revolution with open arms. The business world needs to recognize that often the person who closed the deal at the client meeting couldn’t have done it without significant help from colleagues.
At a collaborative firm, much planning and correspondence would have led to that meeting. It’s possible that the the true hero of the deal was the person who deftly brought a company email chain back on track after it came dangerously close to devolving into a series of cat memes, or worse, a political debate.
So, what attributes are likely to be valued once we can measure and truly quantify the spillover effect? Here are three key areas where you might want to focus:
Hone Your Social Skills
It doesn’t matter how productive you are if no one enjoys working with you. Steve Nash, a former NBA player that the researchers found to be particularly valuable at making his teams better, was famous for constantly high-fiving his teammates. There’s never been a direct measure of a “high-five to productivity ratio,” but doling out praise and encouragement seems to be indicative of creating a high-quality team culture, which in turn increases performance.
Kobe Bryant, on the other hand, is famous for excoriating his teammates on the court, publicly demanding his owners trade underperforming players, and not passing to open teammates. As talented as he is at scoring, the in-depth analysis is pointing toward this kind of behavior being even more detrimental to team success than once thought.
Put your best effort toward becoming a friendly, optimistic, team-oriented employee, and it should pay dividends – particularly once the Big Data revolution kicks in.
Be a Facilitator
A facilitator is the kind of person who helps get projects done without caring if they ultimately get the credit. A good example comes from the world of patents, where researchers are often trying to create their own novel patents while also serving as sounding boards for others in the office.
If you’re the type of person who freely helps others make the best product they can, you’re likely to reap the benefits once that kind of behavior is easier to measure. The authors believe these types of employees are going to be highly valued, stating, “As facilitation skills become more easily measured and rewarded, then incentives to invest in these skills also increases.”
Think About Asking for a Trade
The researchers who wrote the spillover paper found that NBA performance is highly dependent on who your teammates are. A change of scenery often brought about a tremendous increase in a player’s value. The same could absolutely be true in the business world.
The authors note that, “Most firms have various teams within their organization and have the ability to reassign workers across teams.” If you’re feeling like switching teams might make for a better work environment, approach your manager and explain your position.
It’s common sense to build up the basic skills it takes to succeed in the workplace. Hard work and effective time management never go out of style. But it’s also a good idea to supplement those skills by focusing on ways to help your colleagues – because in the near future, the overall impact you have on your team may be quantifiable, and rewarded with a raise.
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