Prioritizing Team Chemistry Over Individual Performance: What Higher Ed Can Learn from Athletics

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In higher education, as in other sectors, managers tend to prioritize individual talent over team chemistry. This is a mistake.

Consider a sports team. The individual talent of the star players isn’t enough to ensure victories for the team. The best players have to do more than just score points, block shots, or play great defense. If you watch any sport and you listen to the announcers, you’ll find a recurring concept discussed. The very best players are judged not by their individual abilities, talent, or statistics, but by how much better they make their teammates. The best quarterbacks make their receivers, running backs, and even offensive linemen better. The best safeties make their defensive compatriots better. The best point guards make their teammates better.

The mark of the truly great player is that she makes her teammates better.

In your office, at your college, or at your university, this means your “star players” have to do more than get along with their colleagues; they should also positively affect their abilities and attitudes. They have to lift the productivity and effectiveness of the entire team.

When you realize this, it has practical implications for who you promote (and why), for how you approach conflict management, and for your management style.

A “Team Chemistry” Perspective on Promoting Your Stars

Do you have any stars on your team who are creating divisions among your players?

Are you addressing the problem (team chemistry) or are you dealing only with the symptoms (individual conflict)?

Too often, the leadership of a department or division will inadvertently compound these problems. If, as the lead, you reward the star performer without knowing how that star is affecting the rest of the team, you run some big risks. Star performers are easy to spot, and it is easy to be enamored by their talent. But if that star is also destroying the chemistry of the team, and you laud and reward the individual, the team will likely spiral into dysfunction and inefficiency.  In one observed situation, John, a classroom support technician who seemed to excel in individual performance was noted as repeatedly making verbal comments in front of professors on the sloppy work of teammates and the ineffectiveness of his manager to address the problems.

In sports, a good head coach will realize if the star is succeeding at the cost of team chemistry.  The player’s performance has to be weighed with how he gets things done.  A good coach will check with his assistant coaches and coordinators. The best head coaches ask the right questions first. They want to know how well the star affects the rest of the team.  Remember John?  In that situation we encouraged John’s manager to do more than assess the quality of classroom “fixes,” but to ask the professors directly about how their problem resolutions went.

A “Team Chemistry” Perspective on Conflict Management

What if you have two stars who don’t get along? Unfortunately, since “stars” by definition are charismatic/attracting personalities, they will create a rift in your organization. It won’t be just Donald vs. Hillary, it will be Donald’s supporters vs. Hillary’s.

Managers often address these individual conflicts myopically, missing the bigger threat.

I recently witnessed this first hand as our executive director failed to put team chemistry above individual talent. Two of her department leads refused to get along with each other. In-fighting was the norm for these two, and each saw the other as a disruptive, egotistical, self-centered “ball hog.” Because the executive director “liked” each department head and was impressed by the productivity and abilities of each, she continued to put the health of the team second. Instead of treating this as a team chemistry problem, she tried to deal with the symptoms, even going as far as bringing in a mediator (an effort that was doomed to fail).

Finally, one of the two stars resigned. But this was too late. The damage to the team was substantial. The remaining department heads felt that their executive director had failed. And members of the two departments took on the attitudes of their leaders, harboring continued distrust and animosity toward the other.

A “Team Chemistry” Perspective on Management Style

With a totally straight face, I propose that if you are in charge of someone, or a team, or a department, that you stop managing and start coaching. “Management” is a great tool for things. We can manage equipment, a budget, and assets. People are none of these things (ignore the catch phrase – “our people are our greatest assets” – you can’t sell, recycle, or destroy your people).

People should be led, not managed. And the best example of how to do this can be found in coaching.