January 27

Why is it that only a few teams and organizations are able to achieve a sustainable level of high performance? Lessons learned from social psychology and years of experience suggest that a key factor is the ability of leaders to consciously manage team chemistry and avoid dysfunctionality. 

The potential for conflict and instability exists in all team environments. In the sports world where we see constant turnover of coaches, managers and players it is critical to align player interests and build team chemistry quickly and intentionally.  In the soccer world this illusive capacity of the best managers is called 'man management". 

Whether you have taken over as the new coach or have been in place for a while and are dealing with regular player turnover, your ability to assess the social and pshychological drivers of performers will define your ability to lead effectively. As coaches, we can see players' skills on display, and sometimes we get a glimpse of what drives them when we witness their off the field behavior – positive or negative. We hardly get a true glimpse of what lies below the surface in terms of their personal motivations. We can rely on our own experinces and learning to make assumptions about motivations of player, but without some form of reference and guidance it is qite a challenge to get below the surface of a perform's behaviour and truly understand their motivation. The good news is that at any moment in time the motivational make up of the team or performer is generally static. It doesn't change all that much and it can be assessed.  The bad news is that you cannot personally motivate the performer unless you understand their motivational values and act in a way that triggers those things their value systems and thereby creating a condition for self-motivation. It is a false belief to think we can motivate others to act in a way we want them to. Perhaps the best we van do is to inspire, but the real and sustainbale motivation always comes from within. The key is to figure out how to tap into this rich opportunity.  


For that we turn to work done in the social - pshych space.  What is common to all of us and lies beneath the surface is a set of personal beliefs and values that, on sports teams in particular, are consistent across the board. Dr. Don Beck, a retired social psychologist and consultant to top professional sports franchises had long ago categorized these motivational values in four key areas. His main point is that the value systems generally remain the same regardless of turnover and more importantly they can be measured and managed. The outcome: attention and management of value systems of players makes leaders and coaches extremely successful over time, more so than strategy and tactics. Some of the best coaches known for their "man-management" abilities include Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Scotty Bowman, John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Nick Saban and countless others have achieved great success not because they loaded up with talent, but because they could get the most out of their talent by being able to inspire the performers to alter their behaviour voluntarily. I'm not refreeing to small changes such as performers appearance or some rules to follow, but truly, deep and energy driving commitments that are self-driven.  And, while each of these incredible coaches are very different in their personal styles, at their best, they are able to understand how to reach and connect on a personal level. And when they have fallen short it is also because they were not able to do that. 

We are all driven by a set of beliefs and assumptions that inform our behavior. They tailor our thoughts and lead us to behave or act in pursuit of those things we value most. Unfortunately, these values and beliefs lie below the surface and are hardly discussed or explored. They are shaped by years of experience and lessons learned. On a sports team over 95 percent of a team’s makeup can be characterized by four motivational value systems. Dr. Don Beck’s view is that by managing these competing systems in a conscious way with individuals, coaches are able to build strong team chemistry and sustain high levels of performance.

Let’s see if you can recognize these four types of motivational values of competitive athletes or performers on your team.

1. Warrior - The Warrior type is driven by feelings of personal power and conquest. Their focus is on the enemy who must be conquered.  They take no prisoners and show no mercy.  In their world, it is man against man in a personal battle. This is the player who loses the larger perspective of team goals. No holds are barred.  Every man is for himself.  Attack, destroy, humiliate, intimidate, leave your mark and become a legend in the hearts and minds of competitors.  The warrior seeks respect by standing tall against all odds and adversaries. He feels unbearable shame brought on by losing and it must be avoided at all cost. Perseverance and dominance is essential because only a few will be left standing when the smoke clears, and he expects to be one of them.

2. Achiever - The Achiever is always looking for an advantage, the opportunity to win and to achieve full potential and high status. He’s often in pursuit of the best endorsements, personal gain and enhancing his own image. Personal image and recognition are valued more than how the team is perceived.  They will strive hard to win for the team but it really means winning for self. They will show leadership, respond to strategy, and go all out, but always with a reservation in mind. They would much prefer to place their interest in front of the team.  They wish to be autonomous, be able to maneuver, and generally want to exercise more responsibility.

3. Patriot - The Patriot is a believer in the cause, the one who will stand for and defend what is “right” and the righteous. They respect the flag, the truth, the way, rich traditions, and their patriotic calling.  This is where duty, loyalty and honor matter.  The institution, the ceremonies and traditions are all vital.  Failure brings unbearable guilt and can be perceived as the inability to face one's calling.

4. Teamer – A feeling of “all-for-one-and-one-for all” pervades the teamer’s belief system. We all stand together as one family, a blood-bond that is greater than anyone of us. I am only strong because we are strong - one and indivisible. Rallying around each other to face a common enemy. "Team" has a mystical significance and this provides for many the sole reason for participating. This motivational system, declares oaths and pledges, protects the inner circle and is filled with superstitions, rituals and symbols. The teamer is typically in need of a strong paternal figure in the form of a coach.

Although performers do not walk around with labels on their foreheads such as  “I’m selfish,” “I’m just here to belong to something,” or “I’m here to destroy the competition and could care less about anyone else,” it is in fact what all subconsciously express and perceive about others. And, while individuals possess a degree of all of these types, the predominant belief system can be accurately assessed.  Armed with this insight a coach can apply language or objectives, expectations and rewards that speak to the key motivational value of the performer and inspire higher levels of performance.  

Conflict and resulting team chemistry problems come from competing or misaligned personal motivational value systems of individual contributors. The Achiever will have a hard time understanding and building a strong connection with a Patriot.  His thought is, “I’m here for myself and not so much for the institution. Loyalty be damned.” The Patriot, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the need for personal glory and success over the pride of wearing and competing for the “jersey” and sacrificing for a good greater than self. All too often dysfunction comes from poor communication, connectedness and lack of trust among performers because of competing or conflicting value systems and divergent interests of teammates. The dysfunctionality is felt but most often it is ill-perceived, ignored or left un-addressed.

My work with college sports teams brings this dynamic to light in each and every team culture and chemistry analysis, however I’ll use public examples to illustrate the point.  While you reflect on the following examples, notice the common themes in your experiences.

The recent Miami Heat trio of James, Wade and Bosh came together as achievers. They didn’t enjoy success until they learned to exhibit teamer and patriot qualities and behavior. Their chemistry and success improved once they incorporated behaviors of a teamer or patriot.

The Miami Dolphins bullying scandal between Incognito and Martin that affected the team and organization was more about the conflict between warrior and teamer belief systems then anything personal. Conflicts like this are not typically about hate or discrimination as they are because of misunderstood and misaligned belief systems and interests.

Two strikers in a 4-4-2 soccer formation who are high on achiever qualities will not exhibit supportive teamer qualities and will minimize their combined potential. It might be best to change the formation and leave a single striker up front if supportive behavior change is not possible.

The Detroit Pistons recently changed the chemistry profile of their team by releasing an achiever in Josh Smith. They emphasized “patriot” qualities by orienting the team towards developing “young talent”. Before the trade their record was 5 wins - 23 losses and since the trade they own a record of 10 wins -2 losses. Managing team chemistry sometimes means addition by subtraction. 

People who are fortunate to take part in successful teams that understand this dynamic can recall with great clarity and emotion as they describe their experience. Comments such as “we were like a band of brothers,” “we had great camaraderie,” “we cared for each other,” “we worked for each other,” “no-one was really bigger than anyone else,” and “we trusted each other” are typical of how interactions and teamwork are described when participants of these teams look back.

Dysfunctional team dynamics are to be expected. They happen with regularity and it will always be that way because each of us bring unique experiences, skills and diversity in beliefs or values. With a clear understanding and effective selection of contributors’ complimentary value systems, proper indoctrination and culture building efforts success is attainable. But sustainable and consistent high-level performance is a huge challenge if closer attention isn’t paid to below the surface motivational values of players.

The key to sustainable high performance cultures is consistency. Exceptional leaders know this intuitively and consciously manage the chemistry of their team by triggering the right tone for the right combination of performers. That requires high expectations, clarity about what your values are and knowledge of what exists among your performers so that you can expertly manage the natural dysfunction that’s inevitable among teammates.

The next time you witness a drop off in team performance consider that team chemistry has taken a hit and that it’s entirely possible that the lack of connectedness or dysfunction is a misalignment of personal motivations that translates to poor execution. Without attention to individual “man-management” and being performer focused, sustaining excellence is nearly impossible.

To build an exhilarating and a successful team environment requires great effort. More than that, it requires constant focus on purpose, culture and motivational values. Solving team dysfunctionality and creating peak experiences requires an ongoing commitment to managing team chemistry as much as training, tactics and strategy. 

tags: teamwork, team chemistry, leadership, dysfunction, culture
 Consultation Assessment Articles    
myrland terpsmichigan statearmy logouniversity of windsorbarry university