A recent study aimed at demonstrating the effect of competition and financial compensation on worker performance revealed some surprising results. Université Laval economics researcher Guy Lacroix and his colleagues conducted an experiment involving one hundred students. They later repeated the same experiment using a larger sample size, with the same outcome. The students were asked to perform mental calculations (such as 8 x 84, 15 x 27) and were paid for every correct answer. The piece rate changed over the course of the test.
Competition improved the performance of male participants, but caused that of female participants to decrease.
In a first test, the students worked without knowing the results of the other students, while in a second test, each student was told the score obtained by the previous student. In a third test, the students received real-time information concerning the performance of students to whom they had been matched. During all three tests, increasing the piece rate caused an improvement in performance.
However, the effect of competition was more surprising: the researchers observed that during the third test, the element of competition did not result in increased performance compared to work carried out in isolation, in a non-competitive situation. Why not? The answer became apparent on comparing the results obtained by male and female participants: competition improved the performance of male participants, but caused that of female participants to decrease. Women appear to function better when working in isolation or in a friendly environment, without competition. "It is important for employers to understand the factors that improve worker productivity, but they also need to know which factors have a negative impact," observed Guy Lacroix.