The Psychology of Team Turnarounds
What do the Broadway musical Spider-Man, the Indiana Colts, and Domino’s Pizza have in common? They all used the same process to turn around a losing team.
Sports psychologists and Washington Post columnists Joe Frontiera and Daniel Leidl reveal that process, distilled from five years of research of business, sports and government teams, in their book Team Turnarounds: A Playbook for Transforming Underperforming Teams.
They spoke with CEOs, frontline managers and governors, as well as owners, general managers and coaches in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association to explore what it takes to get a failing team back on track. All of the teams they analyzed—across every sector—reversed their fortunes and did a 180 from failure to success.
Here Joe Frontiera and Daniel Leidl answer a few questions on the art of team turnarounds, and the parallels between business and sports teams:
Why did you choose Spider-Man on Broadway as an example?
Joe Frontiera and Daniel Leidl: Partly because Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was getting pummeled in the news, and partly because we wanted to demonstrate that all industries, all teams, are sometimes in need of a turnaround. In speaking with the co-lead producer, Jere Harris, we got some insight into his incredible commitment to what the project could become, and a lack of ego that allowed him to partner so effectively with the other co-lead producer, Michael Cohl. Their partnership and commitment injected confidence into a cast and crew that had been battered by the media, and now the production is one of the most successful on Broadway.
With respect to turning around underperforming teams, what parallels have you seen between sports teams and business teams?
A sports team is also a business, but its products center around the achievements of the team. The most striking parallel we found is that a committed leader is needed. Specifically, there must be someone who is willing to stand up and tell the truth to the larger organization, as difficult as that may be. Often, it involves some iteration of the message, “You’re really not that good.” But just as important is the follow up message that needs to be sent, “We can be better, we can succeed.”
How can you evaluate the state of your current team to know if it is in need of a turnaround?
Most teams that are in need of a turnaround already know it deep down; what holds them back is the creative rationalizations and excuses they hold on to. In sports, it could be something as simple as “We’re a small market team,” which implicitly lowers the expectations.
What role does the leader play in a team turnaround?
There are a few things that leaders must do if they are going to be successful. For one, people don’t follow a title, they follow the person. So the most important thing that a leader can do is to create relationships with the team and provide insight into who they are and what they value. Secondly, the leader must find ways to refute the excuses of the past and raise the expectations. Finally, a leader must be committed to teaching the team how to be resilient while continually cheering them on because any climb to the top is going to be riddled with obstacles, and a team needs to learn how to persevere through the challenges and setbacks.
What is the hardest stage of the turnaround process?
Changing behaviors. For a real transformation, a group needs to replace old behaviors with the new ones that align with the appropriate vision, goals, and ideals. But as anyone who has ever tried to diet, quit smoking or exercise more knows, changing your own behavior can be a brutal challenge, let alone trying to change a group’s behavior.
How do you get teams past the discomfort and denial of admitting failure so they can move on to a better future?
Deep down, everyone wants to achieve, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. So it’s important that we engage them in the process. One individual that we interviewed, Frank Esposito, asked his employees questions like, “What are we doing that’s stupid?”, and, “What do you think we can be?” These are two incredibly simple questions that can not only reveal a lot about the past and the present, but begin to shift focus to the future.
How can you change a team culture or belief system?
We always hear about the importance of vision, but that only provides an idealized end goal. The end goal is important, but transforming culture is about having the right values, and aligning behaviors with those values. That tells people how they’re supposed to go about achieving that end goal, what they’re supposed to do on a day-to-day basis. It’s also about changing the mindset of the group, getting the team to support each other as they fight side-by-side to achieve the shared goals.
What surprising insight did you gain from your research?
One thing that stuck out was the very different personalities that have successfully led turnarounds. Some are laid back, and others are almost maniacal about their beliefs. But the one commonality that they all have is they care deeply about their team. Another thing that stuck out is the creativity that existed within this group. They’re not insular—instead they use the experiences they have outside their sport or industry to make their own teams better. For example, Bill Polian of the Indiana Colts told me that he goes to hockey games with a GM in hockey to watch how that individual evaluates talent. He believes that in looking outside his sport of football, he can make his team better.
What’s the one ingredient needed for any successful turnaround?
No matter what kind of team it is, the process for a turnaround is the same. A leader has to boldly identify where the turnaround is needed, say it, and then guide the team forward. However, you need trust for any of this to happen—trust within the team that the turnaround is possible and trust from customers or constituents that the turnaround is taking place.
image credit: rowing team image from bigstock
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Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.
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Good article. It’s clear the leader needs to be fully committed, and that he needs to model the behaviours he’s expecting from his team mates, or the values which should elicit from them won’t turn up. I was a bit surprised not to read about the importance of attitude and team cohesion. Best, Matti