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Does Team Chemistry Really Matter? A Lesson from Red Sox Nation

By: Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D.
Last updated 5/16/2013

The Debate
There has been a raging debate in our local Massachusetts sports pages lately about whether team chemistry matters in baseball. The Boston Red Sox were terrible last season, finishing with their worst record since 1965. Yet on paper they had one of the most talented rosters in baseball.

Many attributed the failure to poor team chemistry. But others cite many highly successful teams where the players did not get along with each other, did not like the manager, and lacked discipline. They say that team chemistry is overrated and that hitting, pitching, and fielding are really all that matters.

The Red Sox made many changes during the off-season to improve the chemistry of the team. It is still early in the season at the time of this writing, but the turnaround has been significant. The Red Sox lead the major leagues in winning percentage and the players now talk about how the clubhouse is “fun.”

What to Do
Moving beyond baseball, does chemistry between coworkers really matter if you want to create a high performing organization?

I believe that chemistry can trump everything else. Without it, your organization will never achieve its full potential, no matter how strong its leaders or talented its staff.

Here are some lessons learned from the Red Sox on how to improve the chemistry in your organization:
1. Hire Team Players
Several of the highest paid Red Sox players acted selfishly and publicly criticized their teammates. To remedy this problem, the Red Sox owners jettisoned several of them. During the off-season they spared no expense to replace them with several “good clubhouse” players (e.g., Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, and Jonny Gomes), average players who are known as upbeat leaders and cheerleaders for their teammates.

Lesson for Organizations: When hiring new employees, look for evidence that shows they are good team players. For example:

  • Avoid hiring job hoppers who appear to be more interested in furthering their own career than contributing to the organization
  • Look for evidence that demonstrates they are strong team players
  • Listen during the interview to see if they give credit to others for contributing to their organizational accomplishments
  • Ask their references how well they interacted with their coworkers.

2. Make Certain Your Managers Work Well Together
The 2012 Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine as manager and assigned coaches to work with him. Valentine ended up not getting along well with the coaches or his players. The 2013 Red Sox replaced Valentine with a well-liked and respected manager (their former pitching coach, John Farrell) and hired all new coaches who were hand-picked by Farrell.
 
Lesson for Organizations: Employees can sense when senior managers do not trust, support, or work well with each other. In organizations with good chemistry:

  • The senior management team works well together
  • The senior team works well with the managers who report to them
  • Department heads cooperate with each other
  • First-level supervisors work well together

If this is not the case in your organization, consider investing in management team-building, replacing disruptive managers, and ensuring that senior managers have a major say in who is hired to report to them.

3. Weed Out Negative Employees
The 2012 Red Sox had several outspoken complainers on the team who soured their teammates toward the manager. These players were traded away in the middle of the season.

Lesson for Organizations: Gradually eliminate negative employees. You probably know who they are and how their negatively spreads like weeds on a lawn. Get rid of employees who:

  • Consistently put themselves above their team
  • Speak negatively about others behind their backs and about management and the organization
  • Do not embrace the organization’s mission.

4. Fertilize with Support
During the 2012 season, Bobby Valentine often spoke negatively of his players to the media. The new manager, John Farrell, only has positive, supportive things to say about his players.

The mantra for all managers in your organization should be “support our employees.” They should continually provide both tangible support (such as compensation and training) and intangibles (such as recognition, positive reinforcement, and pats on the back).

5. Continually Monitor Team Chemistry
In 2012, the owners of the team appeared to have a poor understanding of what was happening in the clubhouse. They did not realize until it was too late that the team chemistry was so poor.

Lesson for Organizations: Good team chemistry is fragile. Conduct frequent anonymous employee surveys to closely monitor:

  • Team morale
  • How much employees understand and embrace the mission
  • How employees feel about the direction and success of the organization
  • How employees feel about senior management
  • How well employees are cooperating and collaborating with each other
  • The level of support employees provide to one another

If the chemistry begins to slip, be quick to make the necessary adjustments.

Conclusion
Take a lesson from this year’s edition of the Boston Red Sox: team chemistry is critically important to organizational success. Create strong team chemistry by:

  • Hiring team players
  • Making certain managers work well together
  • Weeding out negative employees
  • Fertilizing with support
  • Conducting employee surveys to closely monitor team chemistry

I hope these strategies will lead to a marked improvement in the overall effectiveness of your staff and your organization— I also hope to be at the 2013 Red Sox World Series victory parade!

You can learn more about developing effective teams at these AMA seminars:
Leadership and Team Development for Managerial Success

Identifying and Solving Employee Performance Problems

About the Author(s)

Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. is an industrial/organizational psychologist and founder and president of Discovery Surveys, Inc. (http://www.discoverysurveys.com/) and the Center for Independent Consulting (www.centerforindependentconsulting.com). He is the author of 30 Reasons Employees Hate their Managers (AMACOM) and, most recently, An Insider's Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice (AMACOM, 2010).