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Group projects are probably not one of your fondest school memories—other people slacked off, or maybe you slacked off, and, in the end, it always came down to one or two people willing to put in extra work to pull together a great presentation.

But once you enter the workplace, you realize the relevance of those dreaded group projects. Teamwork is an essential part of any job today, and just like group projects of the past, most people can name a key team member who makes everyone's job easier by consistently going above and beyond their work duties—helping to balance workloads, developing solutions to challenges or providing general direction.

It turns out these "extra milers" actually drive team performance more than the support of all other team members combined, a recent study from the University of Iowa found. According to the study, managers can improve team performance by focusing their attention on extra milers rather than working to motivate each individual employee.

We spoke with lead researcher Ning Li, an assistant professor at the Tippie College of Business, to learn about his inspiration for the study, what he found in the data and tips for keeping those extra milers engaged.

What led you to conduct this study?

I have a broad interest in human behavior and peer studies, and many organizations today are using teams to achieve tasks. In any team, there is an influence from different members, and we often observe a particular individual who really drives the outcome of the team. We labeled these particular individuals 'extra milers' and designed our study to look at how the positive behavior of these individuals affects team dynamics and performance.

What were your key findings?

We discovered that extra milers display a high frequency of helping behavior, as well as making constructive suggestions to the team. These individuals are particularly useful in helping teams achieve goals. Another interesting finding is that success depends on the location of the extra miler within the team; not every team member has equal status. When extra milers are located in a central position in a team, the team really benefits from their behaviors to influence performance. The most interesting finding was that the performance of an extra miler—when they are in a central position—is more important than the average influence of all other team members combined. This is useful information for managers, because they can target these specific individuals.

What unique qualities do extra milers contribute to a team?

Extra milers consistently show two behaviors: assisting their coworkers with tasks and providing leadership by helping if something goes wrong, and making suggestions of how to move forward. Extra milers influence team performance through team processes and team dynamics. They help to proactively balance workload, make suggestions and back up team members. This way, the team becomes a functional, healthy entity.

What drives extra milers?

Team climate is very important; if the relationship between team members is supportive, then extra milers are more likely to display positive behaviors. This team environment and an extra miler's personality traits are sort of reciprocal. If extra milers display positive behavior, a team will shape a positive atmosphere, which will in turn further reinforce that type of behavior.

How can managers keep extra milers engaged?

First, the behavior of extra milers is observable. Extra milers will consistently help coworkers who have a heavy workload, or those who fall behind. Over time, a manager will be able to pick out the people who are helpful on a team.

Second, managers can utilize extra milers to ensure they have opportunities to interact with other team members. It's important to place extra milers in a central position. To do this, managers may encourage them to talk with other people, change the layout of the office, or design a team to incorporate ongoing interactions. This way, managers can actively change other people's habits by using the extra miler's helping behavior.

Photo: Shutterstock