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Sports Team Lessons for Business


Social Norms and Diamond Conflicts

Does this apply to your workplace? “‘I think the issues arrive because not everyone necessarily knows the unwritten rules, or because they’re unwritten they don’t think they have to follow them…'”

How about this? “‘They’re part of the workplace, part of your job. You know what they are and you stay with them.'”

And this? “The problem is that the players often disagree on what exactly the rules are, interpret them differently, or choose to ignore them altogether. This leads to countless disagreements, some heated moments, and a handful of brawls every season.”

I’ve seen some version of these problems in every company I’ve worked with. Groups have to create rules simply to exist. By “rules” I mean what scientists call “social norms,” assumptions about what people are supposed to do and say in the context of the group. Those rules develop organically and usually stay unwritten at the team level in businesses.

But the quotations above don’t come from business, at least business as we think of it. They’re from an article on professional baseball. The first quote is from Ryan Braun, a Major League Baseball outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers. The second is from outfielder Nick Swisher of the then-defending MLB champions, the New York Yankees. The third came from the article’s author, Bob Harkins of

Harkins opens the article with an incident between a pitcher and a player from the other team. The player had to run back to first base after play was dead, and crossed the pitcher’s mound. “‘Get off my mound!'” the pitcher screamed… He threw his glove, kicking various objects out of his way as he stomped into the dugout, his sensibilities offended by a slight very real to him, yet very puzzling to others.” The article says the runner, a veteran player, had never heard of a rule against crossing the mound. Some of the players Harkins interviewed agreed with the rule, and others agreed with the runner.

If you know baseball, you can skip this paragraph. For my non-sports fans, a baseball field has four bases in a diamond pattern with a raised mound of dirt in the center, from which the pitcher tries to throw the ball past the batter at the bottom of the diamond. Sometimes a player who got to a base will start running for the next base because the next batter hits the ball, only to go back without penalty when the ball goes out of bounds. To “steal” a base, mentioned further down, someone already on one base tries to run to the next even though the batter did not hit the ball. The defending team tries to throw the ball to someone at that base in time for that player to tag the runner with the ball, in which case the runner is out.

Harkins lists other rules, some unanimously supported, others less so, none of which are in the game’s extensive official rule book (one edition is 224 pages). As he says, no umpire will enforce them, and older players make no effort to teach them. Yet veterans will hold the younger players responsible if the rules are broken. The consequences for breaking them can be very serious. Harkins tells of a game in which a player stole two bases despite his team having a huge lead. Apparently many players believe this is unsporting: trying aggressively to score again when the other team is badly down. When the player came up to bat again later in the game, the pitcher threw the ball right at him as punishment, and a fist-fight broke out between the teams.

If you think that is a silly overreaction, you have led a charmed working life. Unwritten rules in businesses lead to yelling matches, verbal abuse, long-running feuds, and hours of lost productivity. In my experience, unwritten rules are one of the biggest sources of conflict on teams. For example, although it may not seem like it, we all believe in dealing with our mistakes. But your definition may be to try to fix it, then tell the team, while I believe you should tell the team, then try to fix it. Can you see a potential source of conflict?”

Countries have rules. Sports teams have rules. Companies have rules. Kids on a playground have rules… even churches have rules. Why, then, don’t business teams have rules?

Harkins asks the same question. “Should the unwritten rules, in a shocking act of revolution, be put down on paper?” he writes.

“‘They could,’ says Braun with a laugh, knowing they never will be. ‘I think that presents the highest likelihood of everybody following them and understanding what’s going on.'” There has been precious little research directly testing the impact of teams (business or baseball) taking the time to write down their rules, as I have pointed out to a couple of researchers. There is pretty good evidence, however, that groups who gain a consistent understanding of their social norms perform better with less conflict. Based on that and having seen it work, I have made the writing down of rules and a way to enforce them a key part of my teambuilding. You can do this easily:

  1. In a team meeting, ask this question: “What drives you crazy about working on a team?”
  2. Brainstorm a rough list of answers to that question.
  3. Combine, delete, and revise as needed.
  4. Convert the remaining answers—no more than 10—into a list of rules.
  5. Decide on a safe method of enforcement.
  6. Make sure you refer to them regularly in team meetings or your discussions with team members, whether you are the team leader or another member.

And just to be on the safe side, never cross the pitcher’s mound after a foul ball.

Source: Harkins, B. (2010), “A Code to Play By: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules,”, Oct. 5.

What an Arctic Basketball Team can Teach Businesses

In 2005, a Native American high school basketball team carried the hopes of 600 residents in the Arctic village of Fort Yukon to the Alaska state tournament. Along the way it went 23–4 and beat or challenged several taller teams from larger schools by playing to its strengths. A journalist who shadowed the team for the season captured the story in the 2006 book, Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska. Over the years I have warned against over-applying the lessons of sports to business teams. However, after reading this I’m starting to think we may not be applying them enough. It seems to me there are an awful lot of things fans complain about regarding their favorite teams yet tolerate in their work groups.

I won’t spoil the ending here, in hopes you will read it. As the title suggests, the book uses the lens of sports to portray a lifestyle most of us cannot imagine. Fort Yukon is in the eastern part of the massive state, near the Arctic Circle. Alaskan villages are so few and far between, the team travels 4,000 miles to complete the season. Every away game requires a flight, at least to Fairbanks. (I was amused to read they visited a store there that I was in during my own Alaskan adventure.) They endure nine-hour van rides and usually sleep in classrooms. The school district covers only half the $50,000 season cost; Coach Dave Bridges “can’t count the number of bake sales and cakewalks, auctions and scrimmage games against the village men’s team” required yearly to close the gap. In addition, the team has to put up with drunken visitors to the locker room, the district’s threat to pull their funding, and naysayers who do not understand the value of basketball to this town. Not to mention temperatures that make -20 F (-29 C) feel like a warm day.

The Fort Yukon players were short, “but they ran like flushed rabbits and, with practice, they learned to shoot basketballs as well as they shot rifles.” It is very easy to say something cannot be accomplished because you don’t have “the right people.” Yet research shows that less-skilled business teams can outperform better-qualified ones if they harness group dynamics to their advantage.

Seven-year coach Dave Bridges says in response to kids who claimed they played fine despite smoking and drinking, “‘My question is always how good could you have been? How much better might you have played without that stuff?'” Some team leaders tolerate inefficiency or bad behaviors as long as the work gets done. How much work could you have gotten done, and how much better off would your team members be, if you did not tolerate those problems?

Author Michael D’Orso writes, “The teams that they face may be bigger than them. They may even be better. (But) no one will be in better shape than the Fort Yukon boys. No one.” Bridges makes his players run in practice until “‘the first one pukes,'” he jokes, so they will still be running at each game’s end as the other team tires out. His players also practice the fundamentals of the game, over and over. Do you pay for ongoing training, and ensure members share best practices? Do you walk through your processes regularly to see what you can improve?

In an earlier year, Bridges lost his temper during a game and yelled at a kid for repeating a mistake. “The entire gym, standing room only, went dead silent… You don’t shame a child in public, not like that. Take him aside later, maybe. Dress him down then, one on one. But not in front of the entire village.” Good leaders know there is no better way to de-motivate a worker than to embarrass him in front of the group. The exceptions, such as stopping a safety violation or multiple willful repetitions of a teamwork harming behavior, are rare.

“He watches so many coaches micromanage their players, yelling out to their kids what to do every time up the court…” the book says. “They play scared. They’re afraid they might screw up, make a mistake, not run a play right and wind up on the bench.” Ensure your people know what you expect of them and have the skills to do it. Then trust them to make the right decisions, or they will stop making them. As one principle of Agile states, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” If you complain your team members “won’t make a decision” or “never do things right,” there’s something wrong with the process, or something wrong with the leader.

“Attack, attack, attack, on defense and offense. That’s Fort Yukon’s game plan, every game, no matter who they are playing or where.” In several games, the trapping defense for which Bridges is often criticized wears down an opponent until they collapse. A professional hockey coach once said you can tell within ten minutes of watching a good team what their system is. A good business team flexes to new conditions, but it does so within a carefully devised system. It does not ignore best practices just because a client or upper manager throws a temper tantrum. Keeping to a system that works is the best way to regularly meet the needs of every stakeholder.

Behind in a game, “Dave is relaxed… He knows his kids take their emotional cues from him.” There is a time for pushing your people, but constant yelling is no more productive than constant quiet. Carefully watch the winningest coaches, and you will see that most tailor their communications to the moment. They react the way the team needs them to, not necessarily how they want to.

You don’t want your teammates making excuses, so don’t make them yourself. The lessons of winning under harsh conditions show what one can do with a mission, system, and discipline. Start coaching your team like a good sports coach, and you may make a difference for your people that surprises you as much as the Fort Yukon Eagles surprised their competitors.

Source: D’Orso, M. (2006), Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska. Bloomsbury USA: New York.

Touch Up your Team Cooperation

This bit of science-based teamwork advice could get me into a lot of trouble. I will conveniently forget to run it by my lawyer if you promise to read the whole topic before implementing the suggestion. Agreed? Okay, here goes.

Touch your teammates more.

On the way to looking up something else, I came across a study of National Basketball Association (NBA) teams. (That’s the American professional league.) Some researchers looked at one recorded game of each NBA team early in the 2009 season. They recorded “fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, full hugs, half hugs, and team huddles” performed to celebrate good play, the article from the journal Emotion says. Researchers Michael Kraus, Cassey Huang, and Dacher Keltner are in the psychology department at the Univ. of California, Berkeley.

After the season, they compared those touch totals to statistics measuring individual and team performance for the year. These went beyond simple win-loss records. An example is Win Score, “a performance measure that accounts for the positive impact a player has on his team’s success (rebounds, points, assists, blocks, steals)” and for how often the player caused the team to give up possession of the ball. For teams, in addition to Win Score, measures of their efficiency, passing ability, and others were used.

You would predict that a team that did better in these measures would have more wins at the end of the season, and on average that was the case. If you’re a sports fan, you also might correctly guess that teams with higher average salaries and those predicted by coaches and TV analysts to do well would have better performance statistics. What you probably would not predict is that even when the scientists filtered out the effects of performance measures, and salary, and preseason predictions, teams that touched more earlier in the year did better as individuals and as teams throughout the season. In fact, two of the three “touchiest” teams had the best records out of the 30.

The media had a field day with this, especially during an NBA championship series. Wall Street Journal reporters watched touching behavior in the first four games. They said if the study was right, the Dallas Mavericks would win, even though at the time the best-of-seven series was tied 2-2. The Mavs were touching at about twice the rate of their opponents, the Miami Heat, 250 to 134. “’It’s all about positive reinforcement,’ Mavs reserve Brian Cardinal said (in the article). ‘And we’ve got a bunch of guys who really get along.’” My favorite headline referred to a star Heat player who was struggling and his teammate: “Would LeBron’s Choking Stop if Wade Loved Him More?”

But people who only read the headlines missed the central point. Kraus, Huang, and Keltner also had a group of people who knew basketball, but not what the study was about, rate how much players cooperated during the recorded games. They write that these folks looked for “talking to teammates during games, pointing or gesturing to one’s teammates, passing the basketball to a teammate who is less closely defended by the opposing team, helping other teammates on defense… and any other behaviors displaying a reliance on one’s teammates at the expense of one’s individual performance.” The observers also rated the opposite behaviors, such as taking shots when the player should have passed the ball.

Scientists have terms for these behavior sets that you have seen before here. The good set is called organizational citizenship behaviors, and the other counterproductive work behaviors. Business teams with more OCB than CWB performed better in every study I’ve seen on the topic, not to mention every team I’ve worked with. The same was true for the basketball teams. The basic correlation between touch and performance was +0.42. The correlation between touch and cooperation was +0.44, and between cooperation and performance was +0.56. Pull the effect of cooperation out, and the touch-to-performance number drops to +0.17. “Overall, this pattern of results shows that touch indicates cooperation between teammates, which in turn, predicts performance over the entire season,” the researchers write.

We don’t know whether touches lead to higher cooperation or vice versa. But Kraus, Huang, and Keltner discuss research that suggests the connection runs very deep. “Some non-human primates spend upwards of 20% of their waking hours grooming, a behavior primates rely upon to reconcile following conflict, to reward cooperative acts of food sharing, to maintain close proximity with caretakers, and to soothe,” they write. Among us human primates, studies show that touch increases trust, perceptions of cooperation, and reduced sense of threat. That middle one suggests touching could increase cooperation regardless of which comes first. This fits study results indicating that merely doing a behavior can change the feelings related to it.

For the record, let me state firmly that in your workplace, chest bumps and butt pats are out. Don’t do it, unless you happen to be a professional athlete. To avoid legal problems or crossing personal boundaries, you have to be careful with how, what, and whom you touch. If the other person visibly hardens or recoils, take the hint.

But I believe we have taken our caution too far. At a networking event a Hispanic gentleman I’d just met gave my leg a squeeze, something many Anglos would find discomfiting. Having lived in heavily Hispanic New Mexico, I knew there was nothing sexual about it, and found it a wonderfully warm gesture. I later hired him to shoot a video for TeamTrainers, and couldn’t have been happier with the decision.

Years ago AT&T had an ad campaign with the slogan, “Reach out, reach out and touch someone.” (One of my martial arts masters changed it to, “Reach out… and punch someone.”) You might try AT&T’s old advice, carefully. After all, WSJ was right. Despite having fewer star players, the Mavericks won the championship.


  • Cacciola, S. (2011), “Dallas’s Secret Weapon: High Fives,” Wall Street Journal, 6/9/11.
  • Kraus, M., C. Huang, and D. Keltner (2010), “Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: An ethological study of the NBA,” Emotion, 10(5):745.

A Story of Friendship and Two Teams

In 1986, when I dropped out of my first attempt at grad school, my best friend Steve Charry was taking another stab at a bachelor’s degree. We met during his first try at what I still call North Carolina School of the Arts despite its name change; his second was at the Univ. of Wisconsin; and he was trying again at Washington State Univ. (Baseball management kept luring him away.) I asked if he could use a roommate, and ended up in tiny Pullman on the Idaho border for four years. Thus he was responsible for my becoming a fan of WSU sports, and my love of the Univ. of North Carolina Tar Heels rubbed off on him.

I moved on after he met his eventual wife, cutting down on our hangout time, and my working hours at WSU were cut back. Over the next 20 years we stayed close despite shifting around the country. I tried again and earned an M.A., while he continued to a Ph.D. from WSU and eventually became a history professor at Illinois Valley Community College. As long-distance phone charges dropped and cell phones took over, we got to the point of talking at least twice a game anytime we could both see UNC or WSU men’s basketball games on TV.

An occasional topic of fantasy was what would happen if the two teams played each other. A fantasy it seemed: Not only do they play in different conferences on opposite coasts, UNC is among basketball’s elite programs, and WSU is, shall we say, the opposite thereof.

Then WSU lured a former Wisconsin coach, Dick Bennett, out of retirement to put his unique system in place in Pullman. In an earlier section, I mentioned an NHL coach saying you could quickly figure out the system of really good teams by just watching a little video of their play, while bad teams had none. In sports terms, this means the way the players arrange themselves on the court or ice, how they move, what they focus on, and so forth. Dick took the job on the understanding that his son, Tony, a respected small-college coach, would come along as assistant coach and take over when Dick re-retired.

Almost miraculously, it worked. WSU began to win games with a recognizable style of defense-oriented, slow, no-turnover play, despite having players of modest talent compared to the better-known programs they routinely beat. By 2007, with Tony now at the helm, WSU reached the national championship tournament fans call “March Madness.” Steve and I were disappointed to see that the way the teams were placed in the brackets, WSU couldn’t survive long enough for them to meet UNC. In 2008 both returned, and when the brackets came out, I was stunned to see that our fantasy could easily become real: if both teams won their first games, they would play each other in the second round.

Steve didn’t know. He was in a coma, felled by a stroke at 49 a few days earlier.

Soon we learned his case was hopeless, and his wife made the hard but correct decision to take him off life support. At his memorial service a week later, during my eulogy, I told the story I just told you. And I asked everyone to watch at least a little of the UNC-WSU game scheduled for… that night. Had this been a movie, WSU would have won. But the Bennett system ran into too much talent within another extremely successful system, and UNC moved on easily.

The next season I missed about half the games on TV. It was just too painful to watch knowing I would not be hearing from Steve. Fortunately I adjusted in time to watch Carolina win the national championship. At season’s end Tony Bennett left WSU, and in a double whammy for me, took the job at the Univ. of Virginia, a team in Carolina’s conference. I knew this was bad news for the rest of the league.

When those two teams played in 2010, I was more apprehensive than most UNC fans. The Tar Heels were struggling that year, having lost four key players to the NBA. Although I would not dare tell Coach Roy Williams how to coach basketball, I know something about teams, and he knew his hyper-talented freshmen had not bought into his system. My only hope before the game was that Virginia’s players had not yet bought into “Bennett Ball.” They had. They beat Carolina soundly, 75-60.

Steve would not have been surprised. One team accepted a way of doing things which had worked for other teams in the past. The other had not. The Virginia players did so despite having to radically change the way they interacted with each other. And this is the moral of the story for business people. There are a number of systems for running a team. Even the least cost-effective is better than having no system at all. But few teams I have encountered, probably fewer than 10%, have adopted a significant portion of any of these systems.

Whether you are competing against other companies or only against your own past performance, Bennett Ball teaches you what can happen when you drop some ego and invest some effort. As for Steve Charry, his story teaches you to drop everything else and find the problem if your blood pressure is north of 200. Maybe it would have made no difference, but I think he would agree with the advice nonetheless. He left a wife, three children, parents, a sister, many respectful colleagues, and a wounded best friend who will never fully heal.

Teamwork Lessons from Success in Business… and Rugby

For a definitive example of high-performance teams, the Univ. of California rugby team is hard to beat—literally. As of 2011, Head Coach Jack Clark’s teams had won 21 national championships, 12 of those in consecutive years. More importantly, 97 percent of Cal Rugby’s players graduated and there had never been a hint of scandal in his program.

For the first decade, though, Clark was not a full-time coach. He was paid $1 a year when he started in 1984. Meanwhile he was working his way up through the business world, at Xerox; a securities firm, Grubb and Ellis; and eventually his own firm, Pegasus Capital. By the time that was sold in 1991, it had profits of $10 million a year.

So if there was ever a coach whose sports lessons could help in the business world, I think this is him. A profile in California Management Review by a business lecturer at Cal, Dr. Holly Schroth, walks through his approach to teamwork.

Unlike most coaches who actively recruit players, Clark prefers to make kids show an interest first. “‘We don’t want to sell the program to a bunch of people who are not right for here,'” he is quoted as saying.

After Clark identifies a prospect, Schroth says, “He makes sure that the recruits know there are lots of rules they are expected to follow.” He also walks them through the team values. As described by Schroth, these include:

  • “The players are expected to make mistakes, but they have to be honest about them.”
  • “They are responsible for holding themselves to a higher standard, always presenting a professional appearance, and acting with the utmost respect to others both on and off the field.”
  • “All team members, players and reserves, are also expected to participate in venue set-up and break-down. Clark believes this instills a sense of ownership.”

Notice that he is explaining all this before the person is on the team. Clark works hard to identify people who are team-oriented. “‘Those who don’t believe in team believe that they give something up or do someone else’s work without getting credit,'” he says. He thinks even a team of egomaniacs could work if they believed, as he puts it, “‘One fail, all fail.'” However, “‘There is never one guy so great that you can’t pass him up.'”

Co-Captain Eric Fry says mistakes are openly discussed so expectations are clear and people learn. However, a lot of the team’s development is led by the team itself. “‘Leadership is the ability to make those around you better and more productive,'” says Clark. Fry likes this model because it means everyone on the team can be a leader. Clark believes having a few people at the top while everyone else competes for authority “‘is not a powerful leadership model.'” Note that the rugby team has 60 people, the size of a small company.

The team’s captains are not necessarily the best players. They manage the relationships between players and help teammates on and off the rugby pitch. “If they see someone making a bad choice, the captain will step in and intercede,” Schroth writes.

Clark empowers the captains to handle those situations. Fry explains, “‘We always know what is expected and where to go, but have the freedom in how we get there… he will give us a lot of different options and tools, but it is up to us to determine what will work best in the situation.'”

As with any good sports team, and too few business teams, there is constant performance feedback, usually given in the moment the issue arises. Players are required to analyze their own performances after each game, and coaches critique the analyses. The coaches also use a process they call “modeling.” Before the start of the season they identify the player’s skills, goals, and roles on the team, and create a plan for their performance including statistical goals. “‘This process becomes a living document that we constantly refer back to and adjust where appropriate,'” Clark says. There also is a post-season “audit meeting.”

Clark does not buy into the idea some managers have of treating their employees as pals or family. “Clark, in contrast, made it clear that whereas families allow for unconditional acceptance, membership in a high-performance team is conditional—based on performance and teamship,” Schroth writes. Fry adds that Clark feels he cannot be as frank if he becomes a friend.

The coach stays informed about personal issues that might affect a player’s performance, and mentors them when such arise. But he does not want to be a father figure: “‘I wouldn’t be as good of a coach if I was the most popular guy in the world—it is easier to be liked than to be a good coach,'” Clark says.

Conflict is managed before it blows up. When one player kept saying inappropriate things, Clark told him to stop talking and the other players not to ask him questions. He felt the youngster would learn to “filter himself,” but in the meantime eliminated the source of potential problems. I wonder how this approach would work with that person at your job site. Most sites have at least one!

Coach Clark admits he is not perfect. For example, “‘I always need to work at remembering to praise.'” He recognizes the positive impact when he does it, but praise “‘doesn’t come naturally to me'” because he does not need much himself. On the other hand, he can be too emotional, he says. “‘I don’t want to make a mistake in tactics, relationships, or teambuilding, and I find myself vulnerable to making mistakes when I allow emotions to enter into my decision-making.'”

A final piece of the picture comes from Cal and Olympic water polo coach Rich Corso, who says of Clark, “‘His mission has always been the character development of young men at a diverse world-class university.'” The way to win, in other words, is to focus on helping your team members be the best humans they can be.

Source: Schroth, H. (2011), “It’s Not About Winning, It’s About Getting Better,” California Management Review 53(4):134.

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