Another study, another mixed bag for women in the workplace. A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research is titled “Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation than Men?”  and you can probably guess the answer without reading any further than that. At first blush, cooperation sounds like an unmitigated good--so, yay women! But in this study it also stands as a proxy for lack of confidence-- so, oh dear.

That cooperation and collaboration are feminine traits is an idea almost universally accepted. (Although many men exhibit feminine traits--to their advantage, as we explained in our June cover story.) The NBER paper looks specifically at women’s preference for team-based compensation. Performing a series of tasks in conjunction with another person they could not see, men and women were given the choice of being paid based on their own performance or on the performance of the pair. More than three times as many women chose the latter option. They made that choice “despite the fact that the team situation could, in principle, expose the participant to a risk of free-riding by a self-interested teammate,” the authors state.

The paper cites earlier research showing that women tend to avoid competitive situations, in part because they have less taste for competition and in part because they have lower confidence. (Interestingly, research cited in the excellent book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, indicates that women are just as comfortable as men with risk. They just require more reasonable odds.) Statistically, the gap between men’s and women’s preferences for team-based pay can be explained by gender differences in confidence, the paper says. In addition, women generally think more highly of their teammates’ capabilities than do men (not just “I’m not good enough” but also “she’s amazing!”). And women are a socially minded bunch who prefer team-based pay because they believe it will be more equitable.

The paper may inspire employers to think more about how they manage women. More important, though, it should inspire them to think more about how they manage teams. Companies love teams for myriad reasons: They promote alignment; they concentrate a variety of skills and perspectives on a single problem; they encourage constructive dissent; they enable learning; and they improve collegiality. But teams are also, potentially, refuges for both the less confident and the less competent. If women prefer compensation based partly on the work of others, that suggests they are selling themselves short. But it also suggests they see teams as effective camouflage for shortcomings.

The larger companies get, the less insight leaders have into the capabilities of individuals. For every sub-par performer skulking in the background hoping her lack of participation goes unnoticed, a team likely includes one or two stars whose contributions are absorbed into a common metric. Some outstanding people (and yes, unfortunately they will more often be women) may hold back so as to avoid dominating their teammates. Those team members who diplomatically and fluidly make the whole thing work--“keystones” in the business ecosystem literature--may also not receive their due.

More and more companies are using team-based pay or incentives, reportedly with good results. But the single, irreplaceable, irreducible unit powering success in organizations is the individual. So, while it’s swell that women are attracted to cooperation, cooperating shouldn’t be allowed to cost them. Compensate the team. Pay attention to--and promote--the best team members.