Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

How to Put Together a Winning Team

Two approaches coming to a TV near you

Posted May 20, 2015

Sports provide a great stage to analyze group processes. This is especially true for professional sports—not only are the comings and going of players within the teams public, for everyone to see (think ESPN), but the ultimate performance of the team, unlike many other organizations, are objective—the team either wins or it doesn’t.

For people interested in teams, this week especially presents a fascinating test in some ways of different approaches to team building, especially if you are also a basketball fan. The National Basketball Association playoffs are in full swing and the tournament is down to the final four teams. While each team is a little different, we will focus today on the matchup between the Cleveland Cavilers and Atlanta Hawks.

The matchup is interesting not only because it is a competition but also because the whole approach to the team structure is different. Who cares about team structure? Potentially, everyone who is on a team should. In our research study, A Multilevel Perspective on Faultlines: Differentiating the Effects between Group- and Organizational-level Faultlines, to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, we find that team structure that is defined by how many demographic subgroups or factions exist, affect how many games won by major league baseball teams. Will the same be true of basketball? How about work groups? (Plenty of research tells us such splits are critical, sometimes in ways that are surprising.)

Most observers of professional basketball claim that the best known teams follow a ‘star’ strategy: there is usually one (or two) major stars that the rest of the team supports. Having recognizable stars gives media outlets like ESPN ‘narrative’ or theme about that team—a consistent story line in reporting their successes and failures. We are sure most of you have worked at one point on project teams or similar groups like that—the leader is the unquestioned ‘star.’ The Cleveland team is perhaps the best example currently of that approach, as they feature the most famous active basketball player of all over the past few years, LeBron James. During these playoffs, the centrality of James to the team is even more acute since other supporting stars are injured.

The other team, Atlanta, follows a distinctly different approach to team structure and functions, based on an approach used for years by the San Antonio Spurs team (the coach of Atlanta’s team was an assistant for San Antonio of many years). This approach rests not on a single dominant star but a set of players, all relatively equal as far as impact on the team, and working together well.  Group theory would say that for such a team, the relationships between members are especially critical since they have to communicate and work well together. This also reminds us of the faultline theory of groups, that says that diverse subgroups of players that share common goals and attributes is a key ingredient for high performance, so matter what the team’s purpose.  Cleveland is generally seen as the favorite to win, due no doubt to James’ vast and undeniable individual talents.

But team structure matters; it’s not hard to see evidence of it being a force for good and bad in teams. Consider the team Cleveland just beat in their just completed semifinals, Chicago. It has been reported that that team’ s ‘dominant star,' Derrick Rose, contributed very little in Chicago’s season-ending loss. Dan Bernstein of CBS Chicago reports that this may be a case of ‘two alpha dogs and only one basketball,’ meaning Rose and rising star and teammate Jimmy Butler and the tensions that arose between them as Butler emerged as a big scorer for the team. Put simply, fighting over scarce resources (there is one basketball) can happen when a team is built under the premise that there can be one big star. Contrast this with the situation in Atlanta’s recent game where they won their payoff series against Washington. Jeff Teague, the starting guard, was asked to stay out of the game and let his replacement, Dennis Schroeder, stay in because Schroeder was doing so well in a recent contest.

To put the idea in a nutshell, team structure is important because, on average, people who share things in common work together better. They don't have to have everything in common (indeed, that’s where diversity as a good thing comes in), but it makes for smoother functioning. In our case, players know each other’s tendencies and anticipate better what their teammates might do in the heat of a game. While of course important for all teams, it might be even more so for teams built on the “no dominant star" model. The commonly used term for this in sports is ‘team chemistry.”

One playoff series between two teams won’t settle all the questions we have about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ team structure or chemistry. But the point is that, for at least some teams, it is not simply sheer talent but the way a team is put together, and sports tournaments, even if you are not a fan, can be a bit of a living laboratory when some of the approaches to putting teams together play themselves out. They can give us hints to what combination of players works better in a ‘star model’ versus the ‘team of equals’ and which might be is the better approach in some situations.

Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova