Always Rely On A Team, Not Individuals

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Business, like football, basketball or cycling, is mostly a team effort, so it’s no surprise that sport metaphors are so big in business. But there’s more substance there than meets the eye. Many of the world’s most successful business leaders once had athletic ambitions, including Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy, General Electric ‘s Jack Welch, eBay ‘s Meg Whitman, NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker, real estate magnate Thomas Barrack, fashion designer Vera Wang, restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, and Nike ‘s Phil Knight. According to Lucy Kellaway, of the Financial Times, an astonishing half of the chief executives of Britain’s biggest companies have won awards for their sporting prowess. Many of them have said their sporting experience made possible their business success.

What can we learn about business teams from sports teams? Quite a lot, actually. After all, both depend on individuals who are very ambitious, focused and able–and sometimes hard to manage. Both compete in environments where tiny margins make huge differences. And both put personal relationships at risk as rivals have to compete for spots on an elite team.

Firstly, it is not true that high-performance teams are generally comfortable places to be. Secondly, it is not true that the best teams are usually made up of the best individuals. Why? Here are four observations based on research with teams of sportsmen, lawyers and military surgeons. All of them operate at the top of their games, some of them in the most ferocious conditions imaginable.

1. What makes teams good can make them difficult, too. The qualities that make individuals useful for high-performance teams–drive, focus, perfectionism, high expectations and above-average intelligence–can make them difficult for others to work with. For example, self-confidence can aid your decision-making but alienate others when you come across as domineering. A superior intellect can help you get your head around complex problems but also lead you to too easily dismiss the contributions of others. High expectations lead to setting ambitious goals but sometimes leave others feeling unable to satisfy them. So you have to figure out how to maximise virtues while minimising the risks they entail.

2. Individual star performance travels poorly across teams. Whether in basketball, law or investment banking, individual star players can find it difficult to replicate their superior performance when they move from one team to another. It takes NBA basketball players an average of 21 games with a new team to recover their pre-transfer performance. A group of Harvard researchers discovered that 46% of a sample of 1,052 investment analysts, all star performers, were unable to replicate their outstanding performance when they moved to a different investment bank, even after five years. One plausible explanation for this is that teams develop highly idiosyncratic routines, even in what appear to be very similar environments, and newcomers take time to adapt. A more interesting explanation is that the success of individual star performers is rarely the result of raw talent alone but also builds on the support structure around them. In other words, your organisation may owe you as a star player, but you owe it for allowing you to be as good as you are.

3. High-performance teams are invariably fragile. Teams in sports and business are rife with tensions. Individuals cooperate even as they compete with one another for resources or opportunities. Camaraderie and rivalry coexist, as do control and autonomy, the need to be creative and protocol, loyalty and open-mindedness, and focus on developing oneself as well as those around one. Those tensions can make teams feel dysfunctional even if they are anything but.

4. Occasionally it makes sense to sacrifice competence in favor of sociability. As seasoned coaches know, the best individuals don’t always make up the best teams. Real Madrid famously spent over 400 million euros acquiring the likes of Figo, Carlos, Zidane, Ronaldo, Raúland Beckham only to see their investment return the worst sequence of short-term results in the club’s history, between 2004 and ’06. On the other hand, the Oakland A’s spent less on their payroll and won more baseball games than almost any other club between 2000 and 2006. Why is it that a technically suboptimal team can outperform an all-star cast? Team managers, when asked, will often answer in terms of personalities, perhaps pointing out that a socially gifted colleague can smooth the edges of those at the top of the food chain who are oblivious to the emotional harm they inflict on others. The tradeoff between competence and sociability raises thorny issues for team selection. After all, how can you justify sacrificing someone who is, by any objective measure, technically superior for someone who is merely good enough, yet expected to gel a team socially–a judgment call that more often than not is subjective?

Of course a socially cohesive team need not be a harmonious one. As Richard Hackman, a Harvard psychology professor, explains, the relationship between team performance and harmony is a tricky one: Is interpersonal harmony a cause or a consequence of good performance? Experiments seem to suggest the latter, but a socially cohesive team can defuse, or at least constructively handle, interpersonal conflict. And that is no mean feat.

What are the leadership implications of all this? Choose your best team rather than your best individuals. Decide what level of destructive behavior you think the team can absorb and where to draw the line, knowing that what makes the best members effective can make them difficult too. Realise that high-performance teams are likely to feel fragile and dysfunctional at times, but that the tensions that give rise to that fragility are entirely natural and can be put to good use. When considering moving a star performer onto your team, bear in mind that star performance doesn’t easily transfer (which can make the new transfer feel terribly insecure). Remind one another of what you are here to do, why what you do is important, and what is expected of everyone involved. And finally, help create an environment in which your team members can make a little bit of progress every day.

That’s all easy to say and tough to do consistently well. Small comfort, then, that Fabio Capello, Raymond Domenech and Marcello Lippi, despite impressive track records in managing star-studded teams, failed to get it right with England, France and Italy respectively in the World Cup this year.