Brain in the Game | Sport Mind Coaching Podcast
Episode Seventy-Five – Team Culture – Building a Successful Culture in Your Team
Hello and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. Brain in the Game is a look inside the elite of the elite. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle. In this episode 75, we're going to be looking at building successful team culture, and how do we get that team to perform?
Before we get into this episode, let me first apologise. I actually recorded this episode a couple of weeks ago whilst I was on the road in the south of France. However, when I got back and I played the audio back, the recording quality wasn't up to the standard I like, so I wanted to re-record it for you. Without any further ado, let's get into this episode 75 and start looking at what we need to do to build a successful team and then how do we get that team to perform consistently?
Much is said when talking about successful teams as it's the culture of the team and there's some defining identity behind what is the right culture for a successful team. In fact, former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson used to always state that it was his team's culture that made them champions. And Champions they were, they were an incredibly successful football – or soccer – team, depending where you are listening to this in the world.
So what is it specifically that makes that winning culture? Full disclosure here, as an athlete, I came from an individual sport as a gymnast. However, it turns out humans are humans and it is this human trait that we need to focus on in order to create a successful understanding of what makes the right culture within the team. And how do we get there and then how do we optimise that? We need to effectively manage the team's cohesiveness, how they all work together, how they fit as a dynamic. It's no use having a team full of really talented athletes that just won't work together, and there's a few teams around at the moment where we actually see that act being played out, where there's a cultural disconnect. Now, when I'm talking about culture, I'm not talking about their race or their ethnicity, I'm talking about the culture within the team, the team dynamic, the way the team operates as a unit, what their philosophies and beliefs are and how those work as a 'cohesiveness' or as a 'divisiveness'.
So we need to understand, as I said, the effectiveness and managing that team cohesiveness along with the team performance. How do you get those uniquely talented individual athletes the platform for them to perform in a way that the team still harmonises and works in a synergistic format? This concoction is the team culture. If you get that right, like Sir Alex Ferguson did with Manchester United when he was managing them, then they get to perform on the platform that feeds them uniquely. Get it wrong, then you end up with this catastrophe of highly talented athletes who can't and won't work together.
So in 1965, Bruce Tuckerman published a theory called the Tuckerman's Phases of Group Development. This looked at how humans form cohesive and productive partnerships. And it is this format that we're going to look at today. So somewhere around this podcast, whether it's underneath on the side, you'll see the ability to download the templates for today's podcast and you'll be able to work your way through some slides I put together for a lecture which will help you better understand how we do create the right team and then get that team to perform.
So if you haven't already downloaded those slides, now is a good time to do that. Just press pause and come straight back. Our ultimate objective is the consistent, good performance of our team. The collective skill set that you brought together as your team needs to be able to consistently and effectively perform each and every time.
Many athletes and actually many elite people have a different kind of fear compared to the average person on the street. Most humans are fearful of failure because failure means that you're at the bottom of the pack. And we know as a group dynamic, because humans are pack animals, that the person at the bottom is the most vulnerable, the weakest link. If somebody's going to go, it'll be the person at the bottom. If we were running across the Savannah, it would be the person at the back that would get eaten first. We know that from an instinctive human survival mechanism. So that's where most people operate from – that fear of failure. "I don't want to fail. I want to be somewhere in the middle where it's safe." Yet when we're talking about the elite of the elite, they're not interested in being in the middle.
And to be honest, most athletes fail frequently. That's when we train every day, we go and we do stuff and we don't always get it right. So we become a little bit desensitised to failure and we just see that often as an opportunity to learn or get more information and grow. Where most elite people – and I changed it from just being elite athletes to being elite people – struggle with, is we have a bit of a fear of success. Now that sounds really counterintuitive. Yet when you're thinking about a group dynamic, it's really relevant because if you stand up and you perform and you do really well, yet you don't know how you did it, then you've just raised the expectations people have of you. And in the world of where most of your successes are very public successes, you've now just publicised to everybody that I can actually do this and I'm going to have to come back and do it again. So that fear of success is normally encased in a misunderstanding of, "How did I make that happen?" So we've got to understand where the human performance mindset comes from.
We want to be confident enough to push the boundaries to be successful, – to be consistently successful – and know exactly what we did to be that successful so we can replicate. We're not overly concerned about our fear of failure because, hey, we do that all the time. However, we raise that bar if we raise the expectation of us, and that's a scary place to be.
And that's a whole different podcast. We can come back and talk about that fear of success versus fear of failure.
But what we're going to do here is look at how we form a group and get everybody within that group to perform at their optimal self, to be the best versions of them.
So we started talking about Tuckerman's phases of group development and that's: forming, storming, norming and performing. Our ultimate objective is to get to that last phase of performance. So the best way for me to explain this forming, storming and performing concept is to bring it back to when you were at school. When the class was formed, we were all put into the room together and normally we don't know anybody.
And it was just this not understanding of what the dynamics of that group was.
Who were the smart ones, who were the not so smart?
Who were the jocks who were into sport, who were the nerds who are into science?
Who were the really social people that are into creating mayhem amongst everybody else, and who are the really quiet ones who wanted to sit in the corner and didn't want to be involved?
We didn't know that dynamic. As humans, we know there is a hierarchical process that we need to go through, which again, if we think about this school scenario, is the storming phase. So normally in the first term, and as somebody who used to be an educator used to see it very frequently throughout the first term, there was a massive storming phase where the stronger ones would rise to the top. The smarter ones would then have a currency that the others would come and utilise. There would be the really popular kids in class who people used to gravitate towards. And then there was us at the back who weren't so popular or maybe a little bit nerdy that people would go, okay, I can go and ask some questions, but I don't want to hang out with them after a short period of time. And everybody recognised where we all fit in that hierarchy, that group dynamic then we'd get to normalising – or the normalisation process. And halfway through the first term, or maybe the end of the first term, you kind of go, oh, yeah, I know that person. You don't hang around with them because, oh, this is a really nice person let's go and hang around with them, or they're the really smart ones or they're the really sporty ones. Everybody kind of knew where they fit in that hierarchical dynamic. That was that normalisation process.
And from then on, it became about performance. What could you do? There were no surprises, there was no side swipes to what you were doing. It was just, this is where I fit, this is how I do what I do. That is, until somebody was added in or somebody was taken out of that dynamic, then what would happen? Especially if it was someone of dominance? We'd go back into that storming phase because that hierarchical team or group needed to reestablish the hierarchy. And that cycle would start again. We would start to storm. And then when that would settle down, we would normalise. And then when it was normal, we'd go back to our business of doing what we did to perform.
Sporting teams are exactly the same, especially when we put national teams together. What we do is say, we want that person, we want that person, we want that person. And you bring them together into a group environment. Often you're taking them from other junior teams or state teams and where they might be the top of the pile in that dynamic to then put them into a national team where all of a sudden they're no longer the top dog. They may be somebody that's going, oh, wow, I don't know where I fit in this dynamic. So there's some trepidation first of all, and then all of a sudden – because most athletes are highly competitive – the storming phase kicks in and you start working out who's going to be leaders, who are going to be those who are the hard workers, who are going to be those who are trying to manipulate the system, and who will be those who just sit at the bottom and go, I'm just glad to be here. All of those psychographics will play a part in most elite teams.
So we have this understanding of management between team cohesiveness and team performance. It starts with the forming of the group. It then goes into the storming of the group, the hierarchical shuffle. And then it comes out into the normalisation. Now, that would be all well and good if it followed that system very fluidly and very quickly so that we can then start to get to the performance – the fun part of what we do.
However, the reality is, especially in the environment of competitive sport, the storming phase can often override any other kind of phase because we've got highly competitive, highly ego driven, highly motivated individuals buying for supremacy. They all want their moment to shine in the sun. They all want the opportunity to influence the outcome. They all want to believe that they're the ones that are going to make the biggest difference, the stars of the team. So that storming phase often becomes a very destructive time within a team, and especially if we see a lot of these days of the rotation process. So an established team, even if it's working well, you'll rotate players out so that somebody else gets an opportunity. Which is only right to create depth and diversity to your team, however what you are initially then doing is initiating another storming phase.
So we understand how this works and we understand some of the flaws in the process. So a lot of coaches and a lot of managers tend to do is try and bypass that storming phase and dictate how the team dynamic is going to be. "Who's in charge; who's doing what; this is how you're going to do it. Therefore, you have no say in it and off you go, be good kids and go and play nicely." The reality to that is you've got highly invested, high ego driven athletes who don't want to be told exactly where to be and what to do. Some do, some crave that external ratification. However, most elite people are looking to impact the outcome on their terms. So by having a dictatorship, it often creates an internal friction. So that doesn't actually work. Sometimes it can work on a very, very short, sharp, "we've got no option, do as you're told, off you go" format. However, when you're looking at a season or you're looking at development of a team over a long period of time, then that dictatorship often falls very, very short and you end up with mutiny on the inside.
So how do we do it? If we know that dictating the outcome and telling the athletes "this is what you're going to do, this is how you're going to do it, go and do as you're told" doesn't work. And we know that if they're left to their own devices because they are such highly competitive, highly strong-willed and ego driven athletes, the forming/storming cycle just goes around and around and around and disconnects from normalisation. That's not going to work. So how do we go through this cycle knowing that we need to go through this cycle and still do it in such a way that we gain control and optimisation within the process? We need to insert our process into the storming phase. We need to have a framework that allows us to better understand the purpose of that role because it does play a very significant and very purposeful role, and that is to work out who's who in the zoo, where do we fit and how do we perform? Especially when we get put under pressure. So there's a couple of things we need to first identify from an external framework perspective for the storming process.
Number one is role identification. What is it we need? Now a mistake managers and coaches often make, they'll say, "They're good at that role. Let's make that role all about them. Let's create the team around optimising that person because they're really talented in that area." And that sounds like a really smart thing to do to optimise your players to make sure that they get a platform to perform. However, what happens if you've just orchestrated your team around that one player and they get injured? Then what do you do? You now have a highly dysfunctional team because they're missing the linchpin that holds them all together and gives them all purpose. So that's not going to work. What we want to be able to do is recognise if we created the optimal team, what would the roles be? And then you'd look at it and say, "Okay, who's the right person to fit into that role? Now, they may not have all the skill sets yet for that role, but if we know what the optimal role is and that person fits, say, 75% of the criteria, we can teach them the other 25. We can give them skill sets that they can fill that gap." And then if they fall out because they're injured or they move on or something else occurs, then it hasn't changed the dynamics and the flow of that team development.
So recognising exactly what do we need and then putting the right people into that role, rather than putting the role around the person, we can then look at how we do that. We can then look at how do we perform. If we know what that role is requiring and we've got this player who fits almost into that role, then what do we need to orchestrate to get the outcome? If we know what we want, what do we need to do to get that outcome?
If we had these kind of job descriptions for the team, the optimal team, and that comes back to understanding what the team dynamic is, what you're looking to create. If this was a business, what kind of business would it be? Is it making cookies or is it making engine parts? Of course, those roles are very different depending on what kind of product you're trying to create. So understanding your team objective, your team dynamic, what makes it work before you put players into it is really critical stage. It's a framework template that allows you then to manage the players around the team rather than managing the team around the players.
So in order to manage the storming, we've got this role identification, this role recognition. So who. And then role consolidation, which is how: what do we need? Who fits a role? How do we make that work? Then, as you get to this storming phase, you've got better places to place the current team that you've selected. So then that storming phase, people have a better idea of where they are going to fit. Already. We haven't put them into boxes, but what we've done is created an environment where they can identify go, yeah, I fit there. Now I know what this role requires. How much of that do I have? And they can take some ownership today and go, right, cool. I've got 25% to come up to where the optimal identification of this role is. And if we've got a team of 15 people and every role has its role identification, and then every player who's vying for those positions are trying to step up into the best version of themselves to fit into those roles and then own those roles – which will come to when we talk about performance – then the storming phase gets circumvented very, very quickly. We then normalise, and we can look at performing.
And there's a very unique framework when we talk about performing that allows us to do exactly the same thing. How do we optimise this? So we've looked at the role optimisation. How do we grow that position? Now, if I've been put into a role, the team have identified, this is the kind of person we want to do this. And I go, right, that's me, I've got 80% of that already, and I'm going to work on the other 20% so I fit into here. Now, you know what? I've got 100% of what you're looking for. Now I can start to grow this position. I can start making it mine, pushing the boundaries. So when I do step out and I've stepped up that role has changed. It's now of a much higher level and at a much higher expectation for the next person to move into. I haven't made the role about me. I've taken that role and grown that role. Which is what we want athletes to do. We want ownership over that. So we want to take control over our own outcome. That's going to give us the opportunity to perform.
And again, within team dynamics often when we have this hierarchical shuffle, constant hierarchical shuffle, people then go, oh, I don't have any ownership over here. I'm just fighting to stay in the team rather than fighting to grow and take control over what I do.
And then we look at role mastery, and this is where we can create this evolution of the role. And we see this when you have these really highly talented, freakish kind of athletes, when they fit into a role so well, and they take it so far beyond what any of us ever expected, it could be taken to that's a mastery of that role, and they set that benchmark really high for the next people to come into.
So the team cohesiveness versus team performance balance, we know we must go through the forming, the storming, the norming and performing. Where most teams fall over is they either try to dictate the forming straight into normalisation by telling people they can't find their own place or we allow the athletes to dictate the outcome and they circle between forming and storming because these massive egos are trying to take control.
The only way we can create a smooth flow between the forming and the performance is to create a framework where people can fit into that gives them some kind of identification of where we start from. They get to grow it and own it and hopefully master it. Yet what we're doing is giving them the framework to grow within. So if we look at how do we build a successful team, we understand that there's a natural human cycle we've got to go through. A successful team has a very clear identification of what they stand for, how they perform, what they're doing on a day-to-day basis to perform every single week to their best, their optimisation. They're not looking at other teams and saying, "Right, what do we need to do to beat you?" They're saying, "This is who we are, this is how we perform." And other teams have to look at what they need to do to try and knock you off your perch. Some of the most successful teams around the world in multiple different sports are those that have this clear identification of what they are uniquely about.
A classic example is the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team. It's very clear to me from a performance perspective that they have a really clear identity. They have a really clear and very simple philosophy, and then that allows them to take new players in who form part of the storming process very efficiently, very effectively to become normalised. And then they can perform.
I hope you've got a lot from this podcast. It's a really interesting subject. When we talk about human dynamics and our group mentality, there's multiple different dynamics and levels to this that we can explore in other podcasts. However, if you're involved in creating a team dynamic, whether that's on the sporting field or in the corporate world, understanding that forming, storming, and norming cycle before we hit that performance will give you a better idea of how you can create fluidity in what you do, get that consistency in how you perform so that you can have control over your outcome.
And so until the next episode of Brain in the Game, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name is Dave Diggle and I'm the performance mind coach.
Copyright 2012-2022 Dave Diggle