"Our findings are based on laboratory and field experiments in China, and those findings tell us that recognising individual team members can supercharge team performance," said study co-author Bradley Kirkman, professor at Poole College of Management, North Carolina State University, US.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. In lab experiments, the researchers had 256 students at a large Chinese university perform individual tasks (making small boxes), and then combine into groups to perform a team task (building the boxes into towers). The researchers then praised the top performer in half of the teams, and repeated the individual and team tasks.

In this second round, teams whose top performer had been praised improved significantly at both the individual and team tasks -- there was no improvement among teams lacking a praised team member.

The researchers then tested these findings among workers at a large manufacturing company in northern China.

Some divisions of the company adopted 'employee of the month' programs to recognise top performers on teams, and other divisions did not. The results were similar: only those divisions that singled out top performers saw improvements in both individual and team performance.

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