Why team chemistry trumps talent
A scrappy group overcoming insurmountable odds against bigger and stronger adversaries. Everybody loves the classic underdog story.
However, people rarely expect these stories to happen in their own lives, probably because they seem too good to be true.
What if I tell you, underdog stories have less to do with luck and more to do with team chemistry. Indeed, team chemistry is often the reason Davids topple Goliaths. I learned this lesson firsthand.
Growing up, I played volleyball competitively. Every year, my club held regional tryouts to filter the best from the rest. It was a ruthless system that ensured the team was always brimming with talent. Everyone was at least 6’3” and always the best player of their respective school team.
So imagine our surprise staring at the podium at our first tournament.
🥇 First place: Bears
The Bears were a rival team from a nearby city who were smaller than us and less athletic than us. Their setter was no more than 5’8 and they only had 3 players taller than 6’3”.
Yet, they passed dimes and always put up a coordinated block. When someone on their team messed up, I never saw the sighs of frustration or looks of annoyance (which I was accustomed to), only a quick huddle and encouraging words. I watched in awe as they won every local tourney and medaled at the national championship every year.
Eventually, I befriended a few of the Bears players and asked them what their secret sauce was. What they said really stuck with me.
- Their recruiting style differed from most teams. They had tryouts every year like other teams, but they only replaced 1–2 players a year. Their core stayed together from beginning to end.
- They spent more time together during the offseason than any other team I knew. The head coach planned many offseason get-togethers and scrimmages, which was almost unheard of at the time.
- Perhaps the most surprising one for me — none of the bench players wanted to leave for more playing time. They told me even though they had small roles, they felt like the team needed them.
As much as team chemistry can help an individually mediocre team like the Bears outperform, the lack of it can hamstring an individually exceptional team, like the “Big Three” era Miami Heat basketball team.
In 2010, the Miami Heat added reigning MVP Lebron James and 4x all star Chris Bosh to the 47-win team led by Dwayne Wade, the reigning all star game MVP. Analysts and bettors predicted that they would conquer the league with ease.
17 games in, the Heat’s record was 9–8, good for 16th place. James and Wade played selfish hero ball, Bosh was invisible, and the head coach Spoelstra was close to being fired. Teammates barked at each other, and James bumped into the coach on the way to the bench, hard. Whether it was on purpose, no one knows, but frustration was obviously mounting.
As the team looked ready to implode, a player’s meeting was called. The purpose — air out frustrations and regroup. According to James, “everybody got an opportunity to get off what they had in their chest.”
After the meeting, the Heat began to find its identity. James and Wade deferred to each other more and helped Bosh and the rest get more involved. Unselfish plays led to easier baskets for the whole team.
Success came as everyone found a role that they excelled in. James and Wade as the primary scorers and distributors, Bosh the secondary scorer, and Udonis Haslem the tough rebounder.
Coach Spoelstra rallied the team under a Shakespearean quote before every game. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother.”
The Heat came back to win 58 games and finished 3rd. They made it all the way to the NBA finals, but… they ultimately fell short.
Progress is never linear.
The next two seasons, the Heat kept the same core, adding only Shane Battier in 2011 and Ray Allen in 2012. Despite occasional injuries and slumps, the Heat maintained its upwards trajectory, gradually improving passing quality and defensive coordination.
Eventually, they reaped the fruits of their labor, winning the 2012 and 2013 NBA finals.
The two halves of team chemistry
In the examples above, team chemistry is what ultimately helped each team achieve success, but what exactly is team chemistry?
Team chemistry can be separated into two parts, social chemistry and work chemistry.
Joan Ryan in Intangibles put it elegantly, social chemistry represents camaraderie and trust, and work chemistry represents a shared commitment to reaching a goal.
There are no wins without [work] chemistry, but very few champions without social chemistry.
You might be able to find some small success with only work chemistry and no social chemistry, but a truly strong team needs both.
Social chemistry is how much a group of people like, understand, and trust each other. It’s evident in tight-knit families and friend groups, but it’s also present in highly effective teams.
When team members communicate and collaborate, social chemistry grows and flowers. This process takes a significant amount of time. No matter how friendly and easygoing each person is, they need to spend enough quality time with each other to form strong bonds. That’s why the Heat displayed surprisingly poor teamwork in the beginning — they put in enough time to build strong connections.
Two traits greatly accelerate social chemistry: social sensitivity and inclusivity.
Social sensitivity is how skilled you are at sensing the feelings of your teammates. A group with this trait will enjoy a higher quality of communication. Socially sensitive people tend to be more empathetic, which creates a warmer and more productive work environment. The Bears’ excellent on-court dynamic is a good example of this.
When recruiting new team members, you should test for social sensitivity using behavioral questions that dig into how they interact with others. To promote it within your team, you should design activities and events that inspire conversation and collaboration.
Inclusivity is a willingness and desire to have everyone contribute. People who possess this trait won’t try to dominate the team and do everything by themselves. In conversations, they will take turns speaking and encourage quieter teammates to talk.
Both the Bears and the Heat demonstrated the importance of this quality.
For the Bears, it was evident in how the role players didn’t want to leave the team because they felt needed.
For the Heat, it was the player’s meeting, which gave everyone on the team a voice, that turned its season around. And when James and Wade stopped trying to carry the team and started sharing the rock, the whole team improved.
Inclusivity is positively correlated with social sensitivity, so apply the same strategies for social sensitivity here. To further encourage inclusivity, lead by example. Don’t talk too much, listen to your teammates, and empower the quieter ones to contribute. Make time for roundtables and team exorcisms that set the stage for everyone to get involved.
Work chemistry is a shared commitment to a goal. Strong work chemistry helps a team stay motivated and laser-focused on doing what needs to be done.
The two most important qualities of work chemistry are vision and tactical cohesion.
Vision encompasses the what and why of what you’re trying to do. It’s the north star that motivates everyone on the team.
For the Bears and the Heat, the vision was winning their respective championships. For businesses and organizations, it’s usually solving a problem or actualizing a reality that doesn’t exist yet.
To establish a powerful vision, you must have a crystal clear understanding of what you’re trying to do and why. Write it down, simplify it, peer-review it, refine it, and repeat — the vision will evolve over time, and that’s normal. Drill it into the minds of your leaders and have them broadcast it continually to everyone else.
If vision is work chemistry at 10,000 feet, then…
Tactical cohesion is work chemistry at ground zero. Team members should clearly understand their role on the team, their teammate’s roles, and the roadmap to achieving the team’s goals.
The Bears, from the starters to the end of the bench, understood the roles that they had to play to help their team succeed. Having this clarity is very energizing and is a big reason why the bench players didn’t want to leave.
The Heat initially relied on James and Wade carrying most of the offensive load. After they gained a better understanding of how they and their teammates fit into the game plan, the Heat offense became much more sophisticated and difficult to defend.
Continuous lines of communication are critical to building tactical cohesion. Use weekly syncs and recurring 1:1s to share organizational and roadmap changes with your team. Keep your org charts and performance feedback docs up-to-date. And finally, just being transparent and open to feedback will go a long way.
Creating team chemistry isn’t easy. A team dinner or offsite once in a blue moon ain’t gonna cut it. The good news is that team chemistry isn’t a mysterious holy grail, it’s a hard but achievable puzzle. If you can put together the pieces, there will be nothing your team cannot do.
- https://sports.yahoo.com/mc-heatmavs112810.html — About the Miami Heat’s player’s meeting
- https://www.fastcompany.com/1747613/what-lebron-james-and-miami-heat-teach-us-about-teamwork — How the Miami Heat built team chemistry
- https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html — About social sensitivity and inclusivity
- http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~ab/Salon/research/Woolley_et_al_Science_2010-2.pdf — Research on social sensitivity and conversational turn-taking
- https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams — Observable characteristics of teams with strong chemistry
- https://sloanreview.mit.edu/audio/talent-versus-teamwork/ — Breaking down cohesion
A special thanks to Lancy for editing.