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Enabling high performing individuals to power high performing teams

October 20, 2015

A thumping for the Northern Hemisphere in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals – match winning performances from Juan Imhoff, Julian Savea, Fourie du Preez – and the absence of Paul O’Connell – showed the impact of high performance individuals on a team game.

Ireland’s defeat to Argentina was unexpected, and the loss of captain Paul O’Connell was keenly felt. However it ends, I’ll feel lucky O’Connell once said about his career, but his forced international retirement due to a hamstring injury was a huge blow. He was their talisman and leader.

Whether playing for and captaining Munster, Ireland or the British Lions, O’Connell has been a dominant presence at the heart of the scrum, the lineout and as a leader of every team who have followed him out of the tunnel. Much like Martin Johnson, O’Connell is a galvanising force when the spirit of those around him looks as if it might dip or flag.

Having lead Ireland to successive Six Nations championships, he is Ireland’s third most capped player, the twelfth most international capped player in rugby history. Not bad for someone who only started playing rugby at 16.

O’Connell has never given in without a fight. It is his defining quality. His lineout prowess, ferocity of his scrummaging, his octopus-like stretching arms over the maul, his work-rate, his rugby intellect – all marked him out as a key player in any team. It is the fierce, elemental nature of his play that sets him apart. That has been ‘Paulie’, uncompromising, committed, a colossus.

Another milestone at the Rugby World Cup was the 100th cap for the explosive All Black centre Ma’a Nonu. He has built a reputation as a beautiful passing centre, a blockbusting runner able to break the line, off-load the ball and set up or score scintillating tries.

On a cool Friday night in Newcastle, he ran out first onto the field versus Tonga for the 50,000 crowd to acknowledge the achievement. At the final whistle, brother Palepoi hung ula’lole around his neck, blindside Jerome Kaino lifted him on his shoulders through the player’s tunnel, and Richie McCaw presented the tasseled silver cap recognising a century of appearances, only awarded to only five other men before him.

Despite Richie McCaw’s absence due to injury, there were a historic four centurions in the All Blacks team – Tony Woodcock (118 caps), Dan Carter (109) and Keven Mealamu (129), joined Nonu. McCaw has a staggering 145 caps. Mils Muliaina is the other centurion on 100 caps, retiring in 2011. Sadly, injury to Woodcock saw his international career end on the night.

It’s a fantastic achievement to gain one cap for the All Blacks, let alone a hundred, and whilst many claim great teams operate to the maxim ‘there is no I in team’, there is no doubt that successful teams are comprised of high performing individuals like O’Connell and Nonu. If you crush the individual character and spirit of those who form your team, how can your team operate at its best?

The strongest teams don’t neutralise individual tendencies, they leverage and harness individual talents, not stifling them – the All Blacks clearly show this with over half their team being the best in the world at their position. Yet, with great individual talent to hand, why is it hard to get teams to realise their potential? How can people work more effectively in teams?

Key business dilemmas such as these were researched by Mark de Rond, in his book The I in Team. Combining social and psychological research with stories from team sport and high performance athletes, de Rond tested many popular notions about teams. His findings advocate a new way to view team potential as a path to business advantage, and shows what team leaders can learn by focusing on the individuals within them.

His overriding conclusion is quite stark and unexpected: Performance should take precedence over teamwork because over-emphasising the harmonious nature of a team can have a negative impact on performance. The assumption is that team harmony is somehow a cause or precursor for performance – a lot of the evidence points exactly the other way.

So the maxim There is no I in Team turns out is only half true. It ignores the fact that great teams have great individual members, and high performing teams are not always easy places to be – de Rond acknowledges that with few exceptions, the qualities that make individuals gifted can make them wearisome as team members, and that powerful teams are made up of individuals who have chosen to work as a team.

In his research, de Rond tackles other realities of teams:

Everyone is not equal In high performance teams, star performers increase a team’s overall effectiveness but only to a point. If the proportion of stars versus average members exceeds 50%, you begin to experience diminishing returns.

Emotional intelligence plays a part de Rond reports that ‘If someone is strongly disliked, it is almost irrelevant whether or not he is competent. By contrast, if someone is liked, her colleagues will seek out every bit of competence she has to offer, meaning that a little likeability has far more mileage than competence in making someone a desirable team member.

Too much harmony can hurt team performance Without internal competition, teams may underperform. A healthy level of internal competition can help get the best out of high performers. While we want everyone to be on the same page, people have different versions of reality.

Productivity tumbles with size de Rond shows that productivity and team size is less an issue of coordination, and more a problem of contribution. Team members are more likely to optimise their performance when faced with slightly fewer members. Larger teams were inclined to seek consensus rather than explore novel ideas – de Rond describes this as ‘social loafing’.

Teamship de Rond’s research highlighted that the most effective teams are unsurprisingly comprised of consistent membership. In a group of ten, where six members have been together for six months or more, this is the tipping point where socialisation of new members is manageable and doesn’t impact productivity; beyond this, the imbalance of existing and new team members is dysfunctional and has an adverse impact on performance.

Complimenting de Rond’s research, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational team failure, identifying the five dysfunctions, where a team becomes silos of individuals.

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

Having these concerns, the key challenge is to ensure team cohesion and that high performing individuals fit into this dynamic process, building the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of goals and objectives.

We have seen star teams do extraordinary work. For example, it took just 600 Apple engineers less than two years to develop, debug, and deploy OS X, a revolutionary change in the company’s operating system. By contrast, it took as many as 10,000 engineers more than five years to develop, debug, deploy, and eventually retract Microsoft’s Windows Vista.

The blockbuster movie Toy Story – one of the most innovative and top-grossing films of all time – wasn’t the product of one visionary filmmaker. Rather, it was the result of an often prickly but ultimately productive collaboration among Pixar’s top artists and animators. If you have world-class talent on a team, you multiply the productivity and performance advantages that stand-alone stars deliver in terms of sheer firepower.

Take another sport, cricket, where the individual performance matters and there are star performing individuals, but always, for the greatest impact, it has to be channelled towards the collective end. Individuality alone is insufficient – a batsman may continually hit centuries, but if bowlers and fielders don’t perform, the team won’t win.

Contrast James Anderson and Kevin Pietersen in terms of attitude and behaviour. Anderson a world-class performer who is committed to the team and whose authenticity and humility are self evident, it was instructive to find the telling remark made to Kevin Pietersen, a similar ‘solo’ performer to Anderson but who is disruptive to the team, was made by his former England colleague Matthew Hoggard, that ‘maybe team sport’s not for you, Kevin?’

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, a unique batsman, a fearless seat-of-the-pants player capable of transforming a match. To a great extent he has done so by marching to the beat of his own drum, for which, while he was at his peak and delivering awesome performances, allowance was made for his maverick tendencies.

Having been acknowledged as England’s primary batsman, guaranteed to deliver, his England career decline coincided with his decision to seek riches elsewhere, lauded for his talent as an individual performer, notably the IPL. These mercenary tendencies manifestly began to intrude on and take precedence in his thoughts.

He opted out of being a team player and playing for himself. He sought rewards for his personal performance as a bat-for-hire, hawking himself around the franchises of the cricket world, playing mediocre cricket by his standards. Playing for the England team became secondary on this agenda.

It is also noticeable that this focus on himself and not the England team career coincided with his public conflict with the team management, and tension with his teammates. Pietersen had little respect for the team cohesion. As a result, he will not play for England again and to suggest otherwise is just delusional.

The implication is that leaders should look to assess an individual’s attitude around the ‘I in team’, specifically ensuring that team members are clear about and happy with team goals that have been identified. Appropriate action should be taken on developing team communication and shared responsibility – developing the ‘we’ mentality, that it would appear Pietersen lacked, but O’Connell and Nonu have in spades.

So considering all this research, what attitudes and behaviours should you look for in high performing individuals when building a team? For me, there are three primary considerations to consider high-performing individuals:

A sense of humility & equality Humility is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Everyone in an organisation contributes through assigned roles. While high-performers will potentially deliver more impact, everyone on the team deserves to be treated with respect.

Authentic and collaboration Authenticity and collaboration are critical to both individual and team success. High performers who are team players are active participants. They come prepared for team meetings and listen and speak up in discussions. They’re fully engaged in the work of the team and do not sit passively on the sidelines simply focused on their own agenda.

Share positive, contagious energy Emotions are contagious and infecting a team with either positive or negative energy. You can be a germ or a big dose a Vitamin C. When you share positive energy you infectiously enhance the mood, morale and performance of your team. Remember, negativity is toxic. High performers with high egos are energy vampires and sabotage teams.

Both O’Connell and Ma’a Nonu shows that if you want a winning team, you need to ensure that each individual team member is responsible and committed to contributing to the team, and accountable for their performance and behaviour, no matter how much of an individual performer they are.

Effective teamwork is critical to an organisation’s success. We are better together than we are apart said Richie McCaw. When you score a try for the All Blacks, you do it for the team, because the silver fern on the front of the shirt, and the shirt itself, are more important than the name on the team sheet.

No one can whistle a symphony, it takes a whole orchestra to play it. Individual commitment to a group effort – that’s what makes a great rugby team work, a company work. Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us, but when you have an individual like Ma’a Nonu or Paul O’Connell in your team, it makes a difference.

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