The Best Way to Boost Your Team


Premier League soccer team Manchester United have had a slow start to the 2022 season, losing two of their first six games. But their position might have been even worse. In a pre-season game against Rayo Vallecano, the Spanish team faked a long pass, sending United’s defense scurrying back towards the goal. Rayo Vallecano then played a shorter through ball to Alvaro Garcia who forced a save out of United’s goalkeeper Tom Heaton.

The problem was a flaw in the team’s defense that coach Erik ten Hag had missed. Its identification came not from the top but from a teammate. In the dressing room, new signing Christian Eriksen explained to his colleagues that he’d made a similar move against them last season while playing for Brentford. A short pass made in the first five minutes of the game had given the newly promoted team an opening against one of the Premier League’s giants.

The Manchester Evening News quoted Heaton on MUTV describing how the team came to understand their susceptibility to the early feint. “We weren’t alive to it unfortunately and the guy came through and created a chance. Interestingly, Christian mentioned about Brentford doing it to us last year I think very early on so it’s something we might have to have a look at and make sure we get right before we kick off next weekend.”

In other words, the improvement the team needed didn’t come as a result of detailed analysis by the team’s coaches armed with spreadsheets of moneyball data. It came from a teammate giving a peer evaluation, or PE, to his colleagues.

That’s not entirely how teams are supposed to improve. Managers, after all, are paid more than their charges in order to raise the output of their teams. They might foster internal competition, offer bonuses for outstanding individual performances and have difficult chats with poor performers. An entire branch of consulting deals in assessments aimed at turning individuals into better team players.

But Christian Eriksen’s intervention in the dressing room has shown the power not of top-down assessment but peer review. And it’s an approach that science now seems to back.

In a paper published last year in the International Journal of Management Education, Antoaneta P. Petkova and Eric Lamm of San Francisico State University, and Monique A. Domingo of the University of Connecticut described the result of an experiment into peer evaluation among students.

The researchers gave 266 undergraduate management students assignments that included the need for teams to conduct competitive tasks in the classroom. Observers noted the performance of the team members and at the end of the session, the entire class took part in a discussion lasting up to an hour.

Halfway through the semester, the students completed a peer evaluation, using CATME, The Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness. The online platform allows team members to rate the degree to which other members contribute to the team’s work; interact with teammates; keep the team on track; expect quality; and have relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities. Guided by an instructor, the team members discussed possible improvements in team processes and individual contributions, and interviews were also held with the participants who had the highest and lowest scores on the peer evaluation.

A second peer evaluation took place at the end of the semester which was followed by an exit survey that asked the students about their perceptions of and experience with their teams.

The first goal of the study was to understand the differences between the students’ initial reactions to the feedback and their subsequent decisions and actions. The researchers wanted to know how students reacted to their peers’ feedback when they received it and the reasons for that reaction. They also wanted to know what factors influence the way students use the feedback in order to improve.

The researchers found that the students did value the peer reviews they received when they were provided by instructors. These talks were the equivalent of a manager telling a top-performing employee and the lowest performing employee what their teammates thought of them. Of the 23 students interviewed, 83 percent said the intervention was helpful, 65 percent stated that it raised awareness and was a useful self-assessment of where they stood on the team, and 63 percent said that the peer evaluation gave students an opportunity for students to improve. However, only 35 percent were happy to have received their scores in front of the entire team, and little more than a quarter said they thought face-to-face feedback increased accountability.

Not All Constructive Criticism is Received Enthusiastically

“Overall, it is fair to conclude that the feedback provision accomplished its purpose as it was taken seriously by most of the students interviewed,” the researchers say, “whether enthusiastically or reluctantly.”

However, the reaction to the peer evaluations differed considerably. Understandably, top-performing students were happiest to hear that their teammates appreciated their efforts. One student described themselves as “juiced” because “I know the work I do and the contribution I make.” Another said that they “felt really happy internally, thinking that I’m doing my part and that I’m solid.”

The praise didn’t always push them to put in even more effort. Although a few of the students said they intended to work even harder, some said they planned to reduce their efforts. They thought they were carrying teammates or not leaving space for more timid teammates to step up. Because they thought they were already doing the work of others, they were reluctant to increase their input.

“Overall, the students who got the highest scores on each team did not see much room for  improvement,” the researchers said, “because in comparison to their teammates they were already contributing much more.”

Even when high-performing students said they were pulling back though, the rationale was often to delegate responsibilities to others, the researchers noted.

The immediate reaction of the students who received low scores in their peer evaluation varied too. Some reported thinking “screw these guys” before coming to the conclusion that the low score accurately reflected their meagre efforts. Others were less self-critical, complaining that the rest of the team had plotted against them. One student insisted that they had done “the most work out of everyone.” They intended to keep a record of everything they did to show their supervisor.

However all the low-scoring students reported that they planned to pull their socks up. “Based on these observations, the PE scores undoubtedly played a major role in both students’ initial reaction to the feedback and their decisions to initiate subsequent behavioral changes,” say the researchers. “The lower-scoring students varied in their emotional reactions but all stated an intention to improve.”

Peer evaluation also helped students to understand how they should improve although students better understood what they needed to do raise their game and contribute more when they worked on cohesive teams. The researchers cited one example of a student who came to understand the importance of timeliness when working with a team on a project with tight deadlines.

So peer evaluation was effective at spurring low-performing team members to invest more effort, and when it encouraged high performers to pull back, it effectively turned them into managers, delegating responsibility and enabling the team to grow.

Remove Process Friction With a Contract

To let team members evaluate each other, instead of relying on managerial chats, start with a contract.

Before the assignment, the students taking part in the study signed a contract that outlined their responsibilities and the functioning of the team. The contract explained team procedures such as meetings, communications, and deadlines; expectations regarding work quality, responsibilities, and idea sharing; and team consequences, including the enforcement of accountability, the distribution of team points among members, and when to seek intervention from the instructor.

The researchers noted that these detailed contracts may have left little room for process conflict—a good place to begin a team project. When everyone knows exactly how the team will function, you’ve already removed one potential source of friction within the team.

Once the contract has been signed, ask each team member to review the performance of every other member of the team, using CATME’s five teamwork dimensions. Scores are given from one to five for behavior such as not doing a fair share of the team’s work, showing an interest in a teammate’s ideas and contributions, and encouraging the team to do good work.

A manager should then sit with the team members one-on-one and review their scores. The scores themselves remain anonymous so each team member only receives a general impression of how the rest of the team see them.

The result should be increased motivation on behalf of low-performing team members to work harder and contribute more, and a greater understanding of what they need to do. Higher-performing members will also have an opportunity to step up and take on more responsibilities, in particular the ability to delegate work and oversee the efforts of others.

Both high and low-performing team members will be able to understand that their scores aren’t the sole impression of one manager but the combined impression of their teammates, people doing similar work to their own and who can see their flaws close up.

It’s the kind of criticism that might not enable a team to win the league—Manchester United remain fifth in the table and are unlikely to win a trophy this year—but it should stop the team from letting in some avoidable early goals.

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