Engineering Team Chemistry

On the court and in the office, team success is based on more than talent

“There was one really bad one, early on. Brian Shaw had to pull them apart. Shaq threatened to murder Kobe.”

— John Black, vice president of public relations, Los Angeles Lakers

Kate Bezrukova, Associate Professor of Organization and Human Resources,
University at Buffalo School of Management

Teams with the most talent do not always win championships. During the 2003-04 season, for example, the Los Angeles Lakers were the favorite to win the NBA Finals, but they lost to the Detroit Pistons, a team that did not have a superstar and was widely considered to be less talented.

This is not a unique case — since 1991, only two of the top 10 “super teams” have exceeded their expected level of performance based purely on talent (the 1996 and 1997 Chicago Bulls). If successful performance is not due to talent alone, what else explains why teams win or lose? Ardent observers of sports suggest that the way a group of players jell — their team chemistry — contributes to their success beyond the mere sum of individual talent. Yet, there is no clear consensus on what team chemistry even is or how to measure it. And, perhaps most importantly for managers: What is a leader supposed to do about team chemistry?

Despite, or maybe because of, problems defining and measuring it, team chemistry has long been seen as the holy grail of high-performing teams. Broadly thought of as how well team members interact, team chemistry has proven difficult for social scientists to study. Nonetheless, the copious research that has been directed towards understanding what goes into a well-functioning group is a testament to its significance.

Diversity and pockets of sameness

Our research on team chemistry is driven by the idea, backed by numerous studies, that a team needs diversity and differences (age, background, etc.) to capitalize on each other’s expertise and have a positive impact on performance. Based on prior research that suggests a group’s demographic makeup matters for performance, we also considered how many “pockets of sameness” teams have. For athletic teams, this means players who share a lot in common and may serve as an oasis of support through tough times, like a losing streak or personal issues. The bottom line is that diversity and similarity are both critical for good team chemistry.

To put these ideas to the test, we collected data on all 30 Major League Baseball team rosters, analyzing each player’s country of origin, years in the MLB, salary and whether he was considered a star player over six-year period. To get to the punchline, we found that over this period, teams with better than average team chemistry won an average of three more games per year than those with poor team chemistry. For teams competing for championships, three games can mean the difference between making the playoffs or not — and gaining or losing millions in additional revenue as well, highlighting the business value of team chemistry and its significance for competiveness.

 Three dimensions of team chemistry

Back to the original question, what is team chemistry? Instead of defining it as one central concept, we took a different approach and propose a three-part model to describe team chemistry:

  • The diversity factor: The impact from diversity, measured by age, tenure with the team, nationality, race, position and other important attributes. Teams with the highest chemistry scores on this factor have several overlapping subgroups of people based on shared traits and experiences, providing both adaptability and flexibility for the team.
  • The isolation factor: The impact from players who are isolated because they are too different and lack subgroups of people with shared demographic traits. Too much diversity can, in fact, produce clubhouse isolation for players who don’t have teammates with similar backgrounds or experiences.
  • The ego factor: The impact from individuals’ differences in performance and monetary status. Too few very talented and highly paid players signals a lack of leadership; too many, however, creates conflict. The ideal level falls in the middle. (For example, consider the recent example of Kyrie Irving wanting to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, despite making the Finals in the last three consecutive seasons, apparently because of difficulty sharing the spotlight with LeBron James.)

Based on our factors, we calculated a score for each MLB team, and teams in the middle actually experienced the biggest positive impact from chemistry. Therefore, chemistry is more complex than simply good or bad. Rather, teams can have too much (too much “sameness” and thus no leaders to share expertise or provide a clear hierarchy) or too little (too many differences that are hard to manage).

Changing effects over time

 Using data from the NBA, we also found that team chemistry has greater effects at different times. It is most impactful early in the season, a critical stage when coaches benefit from playing high-chemistry lineups. In contrast, teams without strong diversity subgroups will be at a disadvantage early in the year because such subgroups can foster social support during difficult times, such as a losing streak on the road.

Later, as the season progresses toward the playoffs, we find the positive effect of team chemistry wanes. By that time, it’s too late to worry about chemistry, as the pressure of having “everything on the line” may overwhelm players’ attention to the game. In the playoffs, coaches focus on other elements, including team strategy, individual matchups and injury prevention by managing individual players’ playing time.

Work team chemistry

Our findings demonstrate patterns that can help leaders and managers think of team chemistry as a measurable concept they can recognize and leverage. As they form work teams, leaders should strive to enhance team chemistry by taking into account information they already have, but aren’t currently leveraging. For example, many tech companies, like Google, struggle with being too homogenous, leaving those who may be different feeling like outsiders. But leaders can improve team chemistry by making those individuals feel included by emphasizing the attributes they do share with others (they’re similar ages, went to the same university, have children that go to school together, etc.).

While countless coaches and players have observed the importance of high-quality relationships among players, we quantify the phenomenon, showing us how important it is for team performance and how leaders can leverage that chemistry for team success. We encourage future research to consider individual characteristics beyond demographics (for example, personality traits) when measuring lineup chemistry and to examine lineups in other highly interdependent situations beyond sports.

In fact, the most important takeaway for leaders is that the principles of team chemistry should apply to teams and groups in any situation where different people need to work together towards a common goal. These days, that includes just about everyone.

Kate Bezrukova is an associate professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management. She is an expert on diversity, team chemistry and group faultlines. Her research on team chemistry has been featured in major media, including ESPN magazine, Slate and Psychology Today.

One Reply to “Engineering Team Chemistry”

  1. Thanks for this article Kate. I have found that as a small business owner, our team chemistry is even more important since we are such a small group. All it takes is for one employee to feel isolated to throw off the whole vibe in the office. It is also a tough thing to measure upon hiring a new employee.

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