Company Culture & Team Chemistry
“Great Groups are not realistic places. They are exuberant, irrationally optimistic ones.” Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration
In the 2008 Summer Olympics, Jason Lezak anchored the gold medal winning US 400-meter freestyle relay team. Winning gold seemed improbable, especially when Jason dove into the pool a full second behind Alain Bernard, the French anchor and world record holder in the 100 meter freestyle. Lezak swam a personal best 46.06 seconds beating Bernard to the finish by eight-hundredths of a second. Two days later Lezak swam 47.67 in the 100-meter freestyle finishing third while Bernard finished first.
How did Lezak swim so much faster in the relays than in his individual event? Surely the motive for personal achievement would be greater than team victory. Yet when Joachim Huffmeier and Guido Hertel analyzed results of 64 Olympic freestyle swimmers from 31 countries at the 2008 Olympics, their relay times consistently beat their individual results.
A casual sports fan may observe that winning teams seemingly play better together. This raises a chicken and egg question: Is team chemistry a byproduct or enabler of winning? In Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry, Joan Ryan studied championship teams across major sports over 20 years and interviewed hundreds of players and coaches to untangle this question. Winning reinforces chemistry, yet her interviews suggest that chemistry plays a more catalytic role in winning than most experts acknowledge.
Chemistry explains a lot about high performing teams. Ryan asserted: “Noble purpose, essential as it is, carries a team only so far. Enduring motivation comes from something much closer at hand: each other.”
Former US Army General Stanley McCrystal concurs. In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, he notes: “Teammates bring out a fight in you that you can’t willingly summon for yourself.”
Culture and chemistry are related but different concepts. Culture characterizes a prevailing tendency while chemistry describes how a team works together. Teams — and companies — can have a strong culture but poor chemistry or great chemistry but an ineffective culture. A winning formula is when culture and chemistry align for the task at hand.
Chemistry is vital in many group contexts. Orchestral music is discordant unless each instrument plays its part harmoniously. In the military, solders subjugate personal interests for a common cause. The Ranger’s Creed calls each soldier to give his life for a fellow soldier if needed. Mountaineering shares this same ethic. When roped together, climbers place their fate in the hands of their mate. on a knife edge ridge, a climber must be prepared to jump left if his partner at the other end of the rope falls right. Teams and companies have a softer edge than the military or mountaineering, yet culture and chemistry are no less important.
Culture may be defined and manufactured. Chemistry emerges organically. Culture is science, chemistry is art. Yet Joan Ryan identified seven common elements that enable good chemistry and great teams.
The catalyst. Ignites a sense of purpose, selflessness and collective invincibility, which elevates performance through increased confidence and effort.
The wise, kind veteran. He has been through the grind. He has weathered the storms. He lifts anxiety and eases the sting of humiliation. He soothes and advises.
The Kid carries the dream. The Kid throws off energy like a puppy shaking off water. The Kid is the first in line to give high fives. The one draping an arm around a teammate for no reason. She doesn’t know what’s impossible. She believes it’s all there for the taking. “Time teaches many things including limitations. Time forces people, however brilliant, to taste their own mortality. In short, experience tends to make people more realistic, and that’s not necessarily a good thing… Great Groups are not realistic places. They are exuberant, irrationally optimistic ones.”¹ The Kid’s irrational optimism challenges veterans to shrug off the limits they’ve put on themselves.
The Enforcer upholds the standards of the team, taking teammates to task for slacking off in practice, making mental errors, missing signs. The Enforcer believes winning is more important than popularity. The Enforcer never chooses feelings over winning. When she notices small slippages in behavior and effort, she sounds the alarm. The Enforcer recognizes the signs of a team dancing toward disaster.
The Buddy is everybody’s friend. No one eats alone when there is a Buddy on the team. No one is without a tribe.
The Warrior is so exceptional and intimidating he gives the entire team swagger. The Warrior doesn’t have to be a pleasant person … She just has to be extraordinary and fearless.
The Jester is a shapeshifter. He can pump up his teammates like the Sparkplug. He can call out disruptive behavior like the Enforcer. He can foster connections like the Buddy. He can break tension, boost camaraderie, ease anxiety. Because he can poke fun without ticking people off, he can say almost anything to anybody. He can shoot the sharpest dart without leaving a scar because no rebuke lands more softly than one wrapped in humor. A good laugh is like a cleanse to the system. A team cannot function well without humor. It solidifies the players’ sense of themselves as a single unit. Only they could trust each other enough to accept the mockery and insults for what they are: signs of acceptance and even affection. The Jester’s gift for making people laugh brings them together in a way few things can. A truly gifted Jester can wield more influence on a team than the strongest Warrior.
Every company would do well to have a Yoda, a Billy the Kid, or a Maximus. Humor may seem the province of nightclubs rather than corporate board rooms, yet I know boards where belly laughs are the norm before getting down to business.
Culture may be dictated from above, but chemistry emerges from all parts of the organization. As Ryan observed: “Teams are never made up of equals. But for chemistry to thrive, there needs to be a sense of equality.”
Each of us has a role in creating our culture. What role(s) do you play? When are you most effective? As a leader, look for people who bring balance to the company and fill roles in team dynamics as well as skills matrices and the organizational chart. Welcome different personality profiles and help them find their place in the company as they may enrich your team dynamic in welcome and unexpected ways.
Make a difference and be the best you this week!
¹ Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration