Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

The ‘Magic Potion’ of Team Chemistry

A trip across sports teams, political teams, and ‘regular’ groups in business.

Posted Jul 21, 2015

Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova

Team chemistry has long been sought after as the holy grail of high-performing teams. But  thinking of it as a magic potion, as many due, suggests we really don’t know how it works or what are the actual ingredients to good team chemistry. We’ll try to sort it out here.

For people involved with teams (and these days, this is most people) the term team chemistry conjures up various ideas or concepts related to how well people in a group work together or get along. Thus, most people have some feeling it is important, but find it difficult to define, much less say how important it is. For instance, in a business setting, can team chemistry make the difference between meeting a project deadline or not? Can it make the difference in whether a company survives or not? For sports teams, where the term is most often used, coaches often ask “how many games can team chemistry help us win, over and above pure talent?”

We are not sure we can answer all questions about team chemistry, though we have tried to tackle some in the past, predicting that team chemistry in our research on major league baseball teams was worth about three games a season.  But to understand the concept of team chemistry a little better, consider the possibility that team chemistry is hard to define and measure because it is different for different types of teams.  Having observed and studied all sorts of groups and teams, from student groups working on a class project to professional athletic teams to top management teams, it occurs that in each case the ingredients of what goes into good chemistry may differ--one size does not fit all.

So, what determines chemistry for different types of teams? Some ideas are found in an interesting article by Rich Kalgaard and Michael S. Malone in the Wall Street Journal this past July 10. One type of team they focus on is the top advisors to presidential candidates- teams that will be in the limelight this coming election year. According to these writers, a common mistake made when picking people for such teams is believing that good team chemistry is about team members liking, or being like, one another. As a current example, they point to Hillary Clinton’s campaign team based on compatibility and loyalty. Decades of research show that teams of people that think too much alike may be susceptible to phenomena like groupthink or what Karlgaard and Malone call “second-rate results.” 

What’s an alternative, better approach to good team chemistry? A team can feature a diversity of opinions and backgrounds that may disagree at times, but where members serve as checks on each other. Karlgaard and Malone point to the other Clinton’s (Bill’s) campaign staff of 1992 featuring a patchwork of personalities like James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, as well as Barack Obama’s team which mixed old time friends form his Chicago days with a computer-savvy tech oriented staff that ultimately was successful.

Another element discussed in the article that is needed for successful team chemistry (for political teams, at least) is too avoid having a strong leader. Because a team with good chemistry tends to be diverse, the teams can tend toward volatility, according to research by Dave Harrison and Katherine Klein. While avoiding strong leaders seems counterintuitive, the need is for a manager that can ‘smooth over’ these differences so that they don't become counterproductive conflict.

But here is where it gets even more interesting. Political teams are designed for one thing- to win an election (first place is the only thing that matters in an election), and have a limited lifespan. What about management teams in organizations, or athletic teams in sports, that have different, broader objectives and at least to some extent, might remain together for awhile, say several years? Might the elements of good chemistry be different for these teams? Compatibility, for instance, might be more important for a management team that needs to address many different issues and objectives and has an intention of remaining together for more than a few months. A strong leader, while not as important to a political team, might be critical to a management team of an organization where priorities change (or need to be changed), or a sports team that needs a strong leader (coach) to remind players of team goals. As for goals, that’s another often-mentioned element for good teams. Group’s researcher Richard Hackman and others have noted the importance of providing teams with clear and challenging goals and tasks. Emphasizing team goals indeed is often cited as something coaches of athletic teams needs to stress, especially for sports teams where individual achievements can compete with team goals (commonly observed by fans of baseball, basketball and other sports). Yet, this might not be as important on a political team since the goal (electing the candidate) is so singularly dominant, and team members are likely to get plum jobs in the administration if successful.

Yet another element of team chemistry can be seen in how individuals are rewarded for their contributions. We have found in our research on sports teams, to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, that wide differences in pay can be harmful to team chemistry. Yet, pay disparity might not be as much a factor for chemistry in political teams, again because the teams are temporary and people are planning other gigs beyond the election anyway. The same distinctions may be true for the effect of turnover on team chemistry. Karlgaard and Malone write that another mistake political teams make is to ‘stick with the team you’ve got’-countering with examples like Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 campaign that changed managers mid-stream. The unimportance of stability for political teams makes sense; again due to their short life, but the ‘getting comfortable with each other’ part of team chemistry may be more significant for teams in other contexts. Stability and sticking with your current cast can also apply to team leadership (coaches for sports teams). Research by Scott Adler, Michael J. Berry, and David Doherty in Social Science Quarterly found that for football teams, changing coaches didn’t improve things for bad teams, and winning teams got worse after switching coaches.

Our chemistry concept is driven by the idea that you need some differences (age, background, etc., aka diversity) to draw on each others’ expertise, pool ideas, and have a positive impact on performance. What we find is that unlike a simple view of diversity and team chemistry (its either ‘good’ or ‘bad’) teams can have too much (too many differences that are hard to manage) or too little (too much ‘sameness’ and thus no sharing of  expertise). In our research on baseball teams, the teams in the middle of the pack performance-wise actually experienced the biggest positive gain from chemistry based on our measure. Related to diversity in teams and chemistry is the notion of faultlines, or splits of teams into subgroups (say, a group made of two subgroups of 20 something women and much older men). Faultline research says that teams strongly divided in very different subgroups can be more prone to conflict. This result has been replicated across different types of management, sports, and teams in other settings.  

Below, we have a little chart summarizing some of the conclusions from the Wall Street Journal article along with our own research, comparing it to research on other types of teams. A question mark means that there are enough conflicting research results to question the effect. All of this means that good team chemistry for one type of teams might be very different than that for teams with a different purpose or objective. Managers and people who select teams would do well to keep this in mind; for those of us that study and try to understand teams, it just means there’s a lot more work to do!

Katerina Bezrukova
Source: Katerina Bezrukova