When great players don’t make great teams

Business by on April 22, 2007 at 10:13 pm

I play on an IM soccer league where our team doesn’t live up to its potential. I commonly tell my wife after a game “We lost, but we should have won”. The individual players on our team were better than the players on their team (in some cases a lot better), but we never played as well as a team. Professional sport is littered with examples where the players that comprised a team were a lot more talented than the team itself (2004 Dream Team, etc.) Sports provide an easy and obvious metaphor, but teams of all types don’t live up to their potential for similar reasons.

There are plenty of reasons why teams don’t live up to their potential, but in my experience they falter most often because of a lack of trust. Players hold the ball too long, or kick it down field rather than passing it short. Developers redo each other’s code, managers micromanage, sales people prospect in each other’s territories, and everyone wants to tell the marketer how to do their job. This almost always results in a negative spiral - people resent when they aren’t trusted, and no one trusts someone they resent.

I’ve found several things can be done to break the trust spiral (OK, here is where the sports metaphor breaks down a bit).

  • Clearly define responsibilities. Managers need to clearly define the boundaries between responsibilities and ensure those boundaries are upheld. Team members need to be congratulated for excelling in their role and discouraged when they unproductively stray into someone else’s role.
  • Highlight successes. Clearly identify moments when team members follow through with their deliverables. The team should become accustomed to seeing team members meet or exceed their commitments.
  • Create a forum for feedback. Communication that happens in whispers and behind closed doors is destructive - it needs to be brought out in the open. Everyone needs to feel that they can raise issues and offer suggestions in an environment that is open, fair and constructive.
  • Increase feelings of security. Team members must be comfortable, confident and secure in their role. People can focus on their own role when they no longer see their teammates as threatening.
  • Allow Time. A consistent pattern of consistent, predictable interactions and deliverables naturally serves to build trust over time. Monitor this closely though - if the team isn’t improving you’ll need to be more actively engaged.
Although many of the things to improve trust can be implemented by team members, a strong leader may be critical to creating quick and lasting change.


  1. Nader Soliman — April 23, 2007 @ 8:36 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, trust is a key element in team success. Unfortunately it is not a matter of personal trust, as a team member threatening your position. Rather, it is a matter of emotional and attitude differences between teammates. One member is very enthusiastic while the other is disappointed. One is very cool, while the other is hot and boiling. The problem revolves around the management and the leadership of the team to define distinct rules with enough responsibilities to keep every one busy doing the best he can where he is assigned.

    Well, easy to speak hard to implement !!!

  2. davenaff — April 24, 2007 @ 8:00 am


    I totally agree with your point. There is an element of style difference that can contribute to ineffective teams as well. You name a bunch of great examples. My favorite is the divide between people that integrate their work with their social lives and those that erect barriers between them. These two often have a hard time understanding each other.

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