The Barriers to Team Chemistry

A professional sports league is a network of competing organizations.  Each organization in the league fields a team made up of players competing for playing time, recognition, and wealth.  As with any large organization, the conventional assumptions of self-interest drive the majority of team members and are reflected in the cultures of each franchise.  Professional sports organizations are, like all professional organizations, governed by conventional, self-interested, transactional assumptions.

In one of the professional leagues, there is a franchise that is recognized by the others as different.  It has an extraordinary, positive culture and it regularly produces recognizable success.  In a competitive world, it would be quite natural to try and imitate the culture of the excellent franchise.  Yet no one has succeeded in doing this; in fact, few have tried.  There is a reason.  Creating an excellent organization requires believing in the possibility of social excellence.  Social excellence is dynamic unity, an emergent, co-created, social order or culture of high performance.  In sports, it is approximated by the notion of team chemistry.

Team chemistry is important because it often allows a team to defeat another team of greater individual talent.  In the 2017-18 season, for example, the Boston Celtics lost their best players as they entered the playoffs.  The remaining players operated with high cohesion.  While the Celtics were the underdog in every series, they kept winning.  In 2018-19, the stars returned and expectations were high.  Team chemistry was seldom exhibited: instead, there was tension and conflict.  With more talent than the year before, the Celtics had an extremely disappointing season.

While people in sports recognize the value of team chemistry, consider the following quote from Jeff Luhnow, general manager of the Houston Astros: “Chemistry is absolutely critical, but very few teams or managers or general managers…  have any idea how to create it” (WSJ; Diamond, July 13, 2017, https://on.wsj.com/2Jqvkaq).

If team chemistry is critical to success in sports, how is it possible that few people in sports know how to create it?  There are two barriers to creating social excellence in any organization.  First, while team chemistry occurs and is observable, it is difficult to understand.  Why?  Because it is dynamic, emergent, and co-created by people temporarily operating in freedom and selflessness.  Our formal and informal theories of practice are based on assumptions of stability, individuality, control and self-interest.  It is difficult to understand something that defies what we believe to be true and appropriate.

Second, even if we come to understand the phenomenon, creating it requires full engagement of the leader and the team.  This includes traditional managerial work like planning, organizing, and training, but these are insufficient.  The leader must go further and inspire full engagement, including the transcendence of self-interest.  So in addition to traditional management activities, the leader must do things that are outside convention, including becoming a person of increasing personal goodness, a person of deep human concern, a person of inspirational vision, and a person who makes it possible for people to think for themselves and willingly choose to do what is needed at the moment it is needed.  Most executives would see this expectation as unrealistic, undoable, and unfair.  Social excellence cannot be understood or created until an executive becomes a leader who understands how to transform conventional cultures.

Reflection

  • If team chemistry increased in your organization, what would happen to performance outcomes?
  • What is your experience with the phenomenon of team chemistry?
  • From your experience, what is your applied theory for creating team chemistry?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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