Recipe for a Team: Special Sauce edition

We are living in a world where recent history saw talent management fads like rank and yank. Jack Welch popularized this under the more linguistically appealing “vitality curve.” Rank order your employees and cull the lowest performing. Makes sense, right? We only want the best. If you want the best-performing organization, it should be comprised of top-performing individuals.

But based on what criteria? This is where things get a little sticky for ole Jack. Because what we are learning now is that maybe the criteria that matter aren’t what we assumed all along.

I met recently with several US Olympic-level rowing coaches. They told a story about the year they put the best-performing people in the boat. The fastest, strongest, greatest stamina, etc. They had all of that performance data. Seems simple enough to whip up a regression equation that tells you unequivocally who is the best. Take the top eight – done. Guess what happened? They bombed. But they learned their lesson, which they shared with us: There really is more to a team than the sum of it’s parts. There are intangibles that matter. A team that is made up of members that work better together, even when collectively we think they shouldn’t be able to – that’s where to put your money. And in 2004, that’s just what they did. And they took home the Gold. Not only did they win the Gold, they did so by a long shot.

The Captain Class by Sam Walker expands on this idea. That there are people who may not be the highest-performing team members based on raw data, but who bring something else entirely, something that the team needs in order to be a team. This glue looks like a set of interpersonal behaviors that align the team and contribute to cohesion and dynamics that are absolutely necessary to achieving the desire gestalt we are after when we create teams. And yet, more often than not, we are blind to it. We don’t select for it, we don’t nurture it – and sometimes, we cull it.

In the Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes research that illustrates what this looks like on modern business teams. Researchers assembled teams and set them to a task. They also provided a “bad apple” – someone who behaved as a Jerk, Slacker, or Downer – to see what the impact was on the team. Perhaps not surprisingly, team performance was negatively impacted by about 30-40% when the bad apple was added to the barrel. He sucked the team spirit out of the room like a vacuum. Except…not all of the time. It turns out the Bad Apple’s negative impact was blunted by a team member who effectively neutralized every negative behavior he demonstrated. The unexpected Good Apple did this through subtle verbal and nonverbal means which ultimately restored both psychological safety and the sense of connection in the group.

We recently explored the role of belief in shaping our expectations and behavior around our own performance. This material also suggests we would do well to explore the beliefs we hold about others’ performance, and about team performance. What beliefs do you have about what makes a good team member or a good team? Are they true? What criteria do you use? Knowing what you know now, what might you be leaving out of the equation?