There Is an “I” in Team: What Can Olympic Teams Teach Business Leaders?
By Mark de Rond, Ph.D., Author, “There Is an I in Team: What Elite Athletes and Coaches Really Know About High Performance”
Over the next few weeks, the world’s brawniest athletes will lock horns in pursuit of sport’s biggest prize: an Olympic title. The world’s number one Taekwondo star, Aaron Cook, won’t be one of them. Controversially, he was passed over in favor of world number 59, Lutalo Muhammed, in only the latest of a series of high-profile selection disputes in the Great Britain camp.
To avoid just such confrontations, selection decisions are typically based on the most objective grounds possible: having athletes compete against each other for a place on the team. A good example of this is rowing, where two crews of four are forced to race each other. After the first race, two rowers, one from each crew, swap places. The race re-starts, with the goal of isolating the effect of a single rower on a crew in a real boat on actual water. The process continues until coaches have sufficient data on each oarsman’s ability, and the relative speed of different combinations of rowers. This “seat racing” should deliver an objective ranking of the best boat movers.
While peerless on paper, seat racing is not always straightforward in practice. Occasionally A beats B who beats C who in turn beats A, which leaves coaches with more questions than answers. Sometimes, oarsmen and coaches choose to downplay objective results as they push for inclusion of an athlete who, by virtue of his social skills is considered able to raise performance levels overall for the crew. After all, it is the combination that matters.
The lesson to business: Teams in sports and business benefit from variety. It matters greatly to have differences in talent and in personality, and even in pay within teams. It is only by combining individual differences that one creates a genuinely effective team.
What else can we learn about business teams from sports? Following are three lessons based on my extensive fieldwork with teams over the past 15 years, and recent results from the experimental labs of Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago and Cambridge:
1. High performance teams are not easy places to be.
We glamorize teams, but life on the inside often feels “slightly off-balance” for much of the time. It is important not to confuse what things “feel” like with what they really are like, given there are two natural causes for this:
First, the individuals you work with are good, but the qualities that make them so can make them difficult to tolerate as team members; overconfidence can be alienating, restlessness exhausting, intelligence intimidating.
Also, teams are characterized by paradox: They mobilize tensions that pull members in contrary directions. The most obvious are cooperation and competition, where individuals continue to compete for resources, reputation and career prospects with others, even as effectiveness hinges on coordinating with them. The temptation is often to downplay – or disallow – competitive tensions for the sake of harmony. The assumption is familiar: The better people get along, the better they will perform.
But studies show that harmony is more likely the consequence of, not condition for, performance. Few things bond more strongly than a shared accomplishment.
What to do: The best way to build a team is to set them a work-related challenge and give them something to feel good about collectively. In addition, don’t try to weed out rivalry in the interest of harmony. This is only likely to drive it underground. As a result, people will continue to compete by belittling the efforts of those around them.
2. The best team is often not made up of the best individuals.
What this means is that we may sometimes sacrifice competence for likability. As alluded to in the seat racing example, it occasionally makes sense to compromise on technical skill if what one gets in return improves the overall performance of the team. As a recent study points out, if people are actively disliked, their technical competence is often irrelevant to team selection. Unless they can be put to work on their own, others are unlikely to seek them out for advice or to share information.
What to do: Focus on finding the right combination of individual high performers – not only in terms of skills but also personalities. There is evidence that levels individual performance are strongly influenced by social context (or who else is in the team). You wouldn’t want a team of lovable fools, but it can pay dividends to select a socially gifted individual over one more competent to allow the team to handle disagreement more effectively and raise their overall level of performance.
Finding the right combination may rely on objective performance data. Despite the availability of such “analytics,” it is unlikely the optimum combo is found by using numbers alone. Characteristics such as how people react under pressure, how they respond to failure and how they behave when not being watched are important but unlikely to be captured by numbers alone.
3. Problems in teams can arise not because there is conflict—but because there isn’t any.
Known as the “Abilene Paradox,” team members self-censor for fear of being seen as negative or subversive, as looking silly or incompetent, or for fear of destroying any existing team spirit.
Studies of hospital teams are replete with examples, often with grave consequences. In one study, a team of researchers phoned 22 nursing stations, pretending to be a hospital physician and asking for 20mg of a new drug to be given to a patient. They were keen to find out how many nurses would administer the drug that had not been approved for use there, that was twice the recommended dose, and that had been ordered by physician unknown to the nurse. In 21 cases, researchers had to intervene and stop the nurse from overdosing the patient. In this case, nurses self-censor by deferring to authority.
In my experience, the Abilene Paradox is alive and well, and teams the worse for it. I wish people would spend as much money and effort making their organizations psychologically safe as they do on getting people to work in teams. I suspect that if one gets the former right, the latter will come naturally. People are pack animals – their desire to work together only stymied by their fear of being “found out.”
What to do: Ask yourself: How safe is my team psychologically? How likely is it that team members self-censor for fear of being considered negative, incapable, needy, unsupportive or unintelligent, and how do you know? Many teams suffer from lack of safety. As a team leader, might you be the problem? Would it be worthwhile bringing in an external facilitator to find out?
Further, might it be useful to implement a “donkey question” rule, where everyone is expected to ask at least one “donkey question” a week, or the kind of question to which the answer probably should have been obvious, just to make sure all bases are covered and all assumptions smoked out.
Remember that when team members provide explanations of why things are the way they are, these explanations are far more useful in clarifying what matters than what happened. People use facts selectively. Their explanations for team performance can differ strongly. These variations are useful because they can help shed light on the things they care and worry about.
As we watch the world’s finest, there is one final lesson to be had: Sports teams have clarity of purpose missing in most organizations. Individuals know why what they do is important, what’s expected of them and when, and how what they do matters to the rest of the team. To get this right in our own teams may well be our most difficult, yet also most rewarding, challenge.
Mark de Rond, Ph.D., is a Fellow of Darwin College at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. He has consulted execs at IBM, KPMG, Shell and others.