One thing I've missed deeply during the Covid-19 pandemic is the excitement of live sports. But it turns out you don't have to attend a playoff game in person to see amazing teams in action: they exist in organizations all around us. Building high-performing teams isn't all that different from coaching them, and I believe leaders can learn a lot from following great athletes' footsteps--I know I have.
Below I've outlined three secrets that winning teams have in common, whether they're on the baseball diamond, basketball court, or boardroom.
Winning teams make it safe to fail.
Google's research on high-performing teams makes it clear that the composition of a team matters less than how that team interacts with one another. Specifically, psychological safety plays a huge role in performance. Said differently, the best teams actively nurture an environment in which people learn from failure and mistakes together versus feeling shame or uncertainty.
A great example from the world of sports is watching how legendary NBA coach Steve Kerr connects with All-Star Steph Curry off the court. He identifies positive elements of Curry's play even when the scoreboard doesn't reflect it, and praises his confidence shooting even when his shooting percentage is off.
The best teams in the world know you can't win all the time, and that even your star players will have off days. That's why it's important to create systems to normalize failure. All of us can be more like Steve Kerr in how we coach and inspire our teammates when things aren't going their way.
Winning teams believe in the seemingly impossible.
Brett Phillips of the Tampa Bay Rays is a career .202 hitter, so very few people bet on him as the catalyst for a win this past week. During the recent game, Phillips pinch ran for his teammate in the eighth inning and had little hope he would bat when his time came. It turned out, not one but two coaches believed in him. Paul Hoover told him he could win the game for them, and third base coach Rodney Linares was heard yelling "swing the bat, you can do it!" right before his ninth inning plate appearance. Phillips won the game for the Rays with his clutch offense, becoming an unlikely hero and tying up the World Series.
The best teams in the world know the data and challenges ahead of them in any outcome, but they also actively believe they can make history together. They aren't afraid to set ambitious goals, and it shows in their esprit de corps and ability to be bold in their thinking and approach.
Winning teams stay tough in the moment.
I have so much admiration for Des Linden, who, in 2018, became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years. When asked about the race, she referenced the importance of "enjoy[ing] this step and this mile and this moment" versus anticipating the next hill or challenge in her way. Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and current Uber Board member, echoed a similar statement from her experience, noting that if you're placed in tough situations at work, "don't run away because it's likely one of the best experiences you can have."
No one wishes for adversity, but the best teams and leaders respond with calm confidence and acceptance when circumstances are stressful. This year in particular, we've seen what a difference compassionate and clear leadership can provide during a global pandemic, so it's clearer than ever that we need managers and teams that stay strong but kind when times are challenging.
Even if the only sports I'll be watching this year are from my couch, I still look to athletes and coaches for inspiration on how teams can grow and improve together, and for commonalities amongst winning teams and leaders. The truth is, the very best organizations in sports and in business make it safe to fail, believe in the impossible, and stay tough and calm when the stakes are high or challenging. Those are lessons we can all apply, even without the roar of a crowd.