This past weekend the NFL playoffs began, and aside form the exciting action on the field, an interesting psychological perspective of the games might be worth a deeper look. Delving deeper, the four teams that won (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Seattle, and Kansas City) are storied NFL franchises and/or have had a lot of recent success. Conversely, the four losing teams (Houston, Cincinnati, Minnesota, and Washington) have not had much success in recent decades (granted, Minnesota and Washington may have at one time been successful franchises, but neither has been very relevant in years).
While it may be nothing more than coincidence, I have always felt (and personally witnessed through professional relationships I have had in sports) that organizational culture plays a major role in a team’s success, or lack thereof. In some cases, it seems like the names and faces change, yet the winning ways remain constant no matter who is on the field. In other team environments, the exact opposite seems to occur — the names and faces change, yet the losing ways continue.
Taking 50 steps back, are we that surprised at the four winners from this past weekend? Doesn’t it seem like Pittsburgh is in the thick of things every single year?!
Examining team culture
In sports, team culture refers to the overall feel and attitude of a team. In winning organizations, people are treated fairly and with respect, positive attitude is contagious, problems are responded to in a fair and timely manner, and an expectation (not hope) of winning is omnipresent. In losing team environments, the exact opposite feel is experienced, from “quick-fix” solutions, to ignoring growing problems, to being happy and content to be just average.
To what extent a winning culture contributes to a team’s level of success is difficult to pinpoint, but I do think it goes well beyond coincidence that in all the major sports there are always a few teams that you expect to be competitive. Furthering this point, it’s also difficult to roll out a “how to” when it comes to building a winning team culture as leadership and managing people relies both on knowing people/group skills, as well as having conviction and committing to the overall process and future goals. Still, there are a few basic ideas team leaders should consider when looking to improve team culture.
- Is there a feeling of winning within the team? This is the #1 goal for every sports team — to promote a holistic, overall feeling and impression that winning and success are excepted, not just something talked about casually. This feeling is manifested by having clear goals and objectives, consistent rules for everyone to follow, and specific penalties for anyone who breaks the rules (including superstars).
- Is there a sense of pride? Do team members feel it is an honor and privilege being part of the team, or simply the place they landed because of geography, a scholarship, or where they were drafted? Members of winning teams are proud to be a part of the team, respect their opportunity, and do all that they can to consistently uphold the values set forth by the leaders of the team.
- Is there a true understanding and acceptance of the value of a strong, winning team culture? Team members need to fully understand that a positive team culture not only leads to a better sport environment, but it also helps win more games, too! The collective value of having every team member believe in and contribute to excellence is difficult to measure, but undoubtedly plays in to winning close games. Successful teams play with more confidence, have better focus, and experience greater resiliency compared to teams that are not known for having a successful organizational culture.
I have purposely not named professional sports teams that regularly lose, but if you are a sports fan you already know the easy targets. Why are they consistently losing, even with high draft picks and various interchangeable players and coaches? Surely team culture plays in to this equation, as it is the one constant that remains in these cases.
All sports teams can work toward establishing (or maintaining) a winning culture. By committing to the strength of the organization, not only will there be more on-field success, but team members generally enjoy the experience more, too.