As the 53rd Super Bowl sprints to kickoff, analysts, pundits and moneyballers are furiously sifting through mountains of data to determine which team–Patriots or Rams–has the winning edge.
Statistics about injuries, coaching strategies, team history, even game-day weather, are being quickly parsed and plugged into algorithms.
But there’s an X-factor in this swirl of information that is a major influencer in the outcome of the big game, one that science is only beginning to examine: Team culture.
The chemistry and cohesiveness of a team, how much its members feel valued, and how they view their role in the group, can be crucial to victory, says Beth O’Neill Maloney, Executive Director of the Positive Coaching Alliance-New England.
“A positive culture doesn’t guarantee success, but a positive culture will lead to successful experiences that frequently lead to success,” says Maloney, whose organization was founded 20 years ago by a Stanford University professor fed up with the high-pressure, often hyper-critical sports culture his son faced at school.
With the help of supporters from both the pro sports and corporate spheres, the PCA has helped thousands of school coaches nationwide create a positive team culture–and that creates better athletes, Maloney says. The PCA says its tools have helped teams win championships, and boost player retention and sportsmanship.
The growing success of positive coaching means its techniques are being noticed—and used–by many professional teams–even the NFL’s toughest, most hardened Super Bowl contenders.
“The Patriots have an incredible team culture,” Maloney says. “Some might say it’s rigid but it’s very positive. At press conferences, [head coach] Bill Belichick “doesn’t look like he’s having fun but Bill is not about the media–he’s about what’s happening inside his team.”
“It’s very clear he enjoys what he does and creates a positive culture,” says Maloney, an adamant New England fan whose organization lauds what has been described as the “Patriot Way.”
Maloney’s Super Bowl prediction is clear: “We are looking forward to beating L.A.” But her counterpart on the left coast, PCA Executive Director Alan Berkes, is having none of that. “The Rams are going to win the game,” he insists.
Despite their home-field biases, both Maloney and Berkes say this year’s Super Bowl teams share some common winning strategies:
- Both the Patriots and Rams put the team first: “We not me” is the Rams’ mantra, while the Patriots tell players they must check their egos at the door.
- Both don’t dwell on the past or future. They are “playing in the present-with a laser focus on the next game,” Maloney says.
- Each team demands strict accountability from players. “Do your job” is the Patriots’ refrain, and the Rams stress that everyone must be accountable–that means coaching staff as well as players.
- And both offer a supportive team culture that gives athletes permission to fail–and second chances. Rams head coach Sean McVay “culturally brings that attitude–creating safe spaces for athletes to be their best,” Berkes says.
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This safe zone for team members is something not to be underestimated, according to Northwestern University’s Noshir Contractor, a behavioral sciences professor who has studied the impact of relationships in companies and sports teams.
“Google did work in this area,” Contractor says, citing the tech giant’s Project Aristotle study that examined why certain work teams succeeded and others stumbled. “One of the things they found is that expertise is not the best predictor of whether a team would be successful.”
“The teams performed the best where individuals in the survey said they felt ‘psychologically safe’ – people felt unafraid of admitting failure. Psychological safety was the Number 1 predictor of success,” Contractor said.
Researchers at CultureIQ have also found that trust–a huge facet of psychological safety–can also boost employee performance.
“We see that trust is something that is a big predictor of employee engagement,” says Scott Young, CultureIQ Managing Director, Client Delivery. Engagement and trust increases “when you feel like your interests are being take into account and that the organization will treat you fairly,” Young says.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Contractor and colleague Paul Leonardi, of UC Santa Barbara, argued that companies need to more closely examine how well employees trust, collaborate and relate to each other. They proposed that firms incorporate data from the emerging field of “relational analytics” –not just individual data–to “better identify employees who are capable of helping them achieve their goals.”
In his latest study, Contractor shows how relational analytics can determine how player relationships might lead to more wins.
“What was a clear predictor of success was not just that [teammates] played together but that they played in a winning context,” says Contractor, who published the study, with colleagues, on Dec. 3 in the journal Nature-Human Behavior.
Their research found that this winning history was a predictor of more wins regardless of whether the players enjoyed success on the same team or some other team, Contractor says.
But whether such a shared winning history might give a team like the Patriots an edge is an “open question,” Contractor says.
“You might say the Patriots have an advantage because they won so much in the past.” he says. “What is consistent is that Belichick and [quarterback Tom] Brady have lots and lots of shared winning experiences. But with the exception of Belichick and Brady a lot of people Brady has been playing with have not had shared winning experiences–it’s been a revolving door.”
“The question is are some shared winning experiences more important than others,” Contractor says.
Since science hasn’t sorted that question out yet, the Rams still have a fighting chance, according to Contractor. And the PCA’s Berkes, of course, agrees, tilting the scales “a bit more” to the Rams for coach McVay’s “open style of affection and empowerment to the players.”
Whichever way your predictions fall, you should give kudos to both the Rams and Patriots, Young says. Given the NFL’s (and fans’) obsession with individual performances, huge salary disparities and overall culture of competition, he says, “it’s an impressive example when a coach can get everyone to focus on the team.”
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