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Super Team Psychology

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

Basketball is Psychology XXVIII


Winning requires more than just assembling a team of great individual players. Super teams don’t guarantee success.

Recently Kevin Durant announced he would be teaming up in Brooklyn with fellow all-stars Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Success seems inevitable with the combination of such high-caliber players, but that’s far from the truth.

The Rise and Fall of the Celtics

After their unexpected 2018 playoff run, the Celtics were supposed to be the favorites to win it all this year. In 2018, All-Star point Kyrie Irving was sidelined with a knee injury, joining All-Star Gordon Hayward, who was recovering from a fractured tibia.

The under-manned Celtics shocked everyone when they knocked off the Bucks and Sixers to earn an appearance at the eastern conference finals. The Celtics’ young stars stepped up. Although they lost to the Cavs, they went down with a fight and took the series to 7 games. The future looked bright.

Adding 2 healthy All-Stars to a team competing in the eastern conference finals team seemed like a recipe for success, but it wasn’t. In fact, the Celtics got worse. They fell apart. Within a year, they went from a team capable of competing for a championship to a team in the process of “rebuilding”.

The Celtics finished the regular season 49-33 compared to a 55-27 record the year before. They lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs.

They were worse, even though they were healthy.

Soon after the 2nd round exit, the rumors were that Kyrie and Al Horford wanted out of Boston.

What went wrong? They had all the individual pieces, but they weren’t a great team.

Kobe was asked about what Kyrie’s next steps should be and his answer was essentially relationships and emotional intelligence.

Project Aristotle

In 2012, Google spent 3 years and millions of dollars studying 180 teams. They named the project after Aristotle because of his quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Google was on a quest to figure out what differentiates the most successful teams.

They studied everything from how often teams socialized, their hobbies, how educated they were, if they had similar upbringings, their personality types, to their skill sets. No matter how hard they looked, they couldn’t find any patterns. It wasn’t about the ‘who’.

Each of Google’s most effective teams looked dramatically different. There was no specific mix of personalities, skill sets, or educational background that was different on successful teams. Google was stumped.

Project Aristotle decided to look into the ‘how’ or the group norms. “Group norms” is a term known by psychologists as the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function together. These are the spoken or unspoken rules of a team, and they influence everything a team does.

Google was now looking for norms- the unwritten rules of each team’s culture. On some teams, teammates constantly interrupted each other, on other teams there was conversational order and everyone respectfully waited for their turn to talk. On some teams, there was a lot of chit chat about the weekend, while on other teams it was all business. This was very different from looking at personalities because some introverts would come out of their shell as soon as the meeting started.

After studying norms, Project Aristotle found the special ingredient of successful teams- how teammates treated one another.

It didn’t matter how talented a team was, the team with the right norms outperformed the teams with the wrong norms.

Team A or Team B?

Imagine you have the opportunity to join one of two teams.

Team A is full of all-stars. During practice, games, and team meetings, it’s all business. There’s no small talk or chit chat, everyone is solely focused on winning a championship, and the whole team is reminded of that whenever they start to get off topic. It’s only normal to speak up about something or give advice if you really know what you’re talking about. Practice and meetings end right on schedule so everyone can get back to class or whatever other work they need to do.

Team B is not as talented. Team B is much different. Discussions break out constantly in practice, film sessions, and meetings. Teammates are constantly interjecting their opinions and completing each other's thoughts. They get off topic, a lot. At the scheduled end of practice and meetings, everyone sticks around to ask questions, and talk about ideas and their personal lives.

Which would you rather join?


There were two behaviors that distinguished the most effective teams.

First, on the successful teams, members spoke for the same amount of time. Researchers referred to this as, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author, said, “As long as everyone got the chance to talk, the team did well, but if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined. Team performance expert Patrick Lencioni put it best, “If they don’t weigh-in, they’re not going to buy in.”

Second, the good teams all had high “average social sensitivity”, they were good at reading how others were feeling based on their tone, facial expression, and body language. They knew how their teammates were feeling; if they were feeling left out, discouraged, or nervous- they knew.

Team A is very serious-minded while Team B is pretty free-flowing, but you should choose Team B because they would beat Team A.

Team A has much more talented individuals, but the group norms don’t provide opportunities for equal speaking or insight to how others are feeling, so a lot of useful information will get left unsaid. There’s a good chance, there will be lots of miscommunications on the court. This team can’t read each other and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up. They continue to play and act like individuals once they come together. The culture is frustrating because as much as they try to make it about winning, they can’t seem to do so.

Team B sometimes speaks over each other and they get distracted sharing personal stories and talking about things irrelevant to basketball, but each teammate feels they can speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and they can predict each other’s actions. There is a deep connection on this team and when they play, it shows. There are no miscommunications. Everyone is prepared. They felt comfortable asking all the questions in practice, so when the game comes around, everyone is on the same page. Their culture is psychologically safe, and as a result, they win. They might not have as many all-stars but the sum is greater than its parts.

The two behaviors (conversational turn-taking and social sensitivity) are both aspects of psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines this as a, “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Psychological safety is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Team A would leave you feeling drained, but after being with Team B you would feel energized. Team A’s norms of critiquing and fights over who should lead would force you to be on guard all the time- that’s exhausting. The norms of Team B (psychological safety) mean teammates will have enthusiasm for each other's ideas, they joke around and have fun, so everyone feels relaxed and energized.

Do you play better when you’re drained or when you’re relaxed and energized?

After years of collecting data, Google’s studies indicated psychological safety was the key to successful teams.

There’s a big difference between being a great team and being a stacked team. Stacked teams are a bunch of individual parts. Great teams are greater than the sum of individual parts; that’s a real super team.


Action Steps

Implementing psychological safety is much easier said than done, but more empathy and more communication is a great place to start.

1. Everyone talks and everyone listens

Make it a norm on your team that everyone speaks up in team meetings (even if it’s just a question) and everyone listens without being judgmental. If you want them to buy in, they have to weigh in first. When everyone gets the chance to say something without judgment, they’ll feel like they are an important part of the team, regardless of their talent level. Welcome discussions and give equal opportunities to participate.

2. Practice sensitivity

On winning teams, teammates scored well above average on the mind behind the eyes test. Like anything, if you want to improve, practice. Make a commitment to thinking about how others are feeling. Pay attention to their eyes, tone of voice, body language, and facial expression.


Written By Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO


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