Measuring the Immeasurable: Team Chemistry

I recently ran across a story from David Thomas in the Star-Telegram in which he reflected on how things are eerily quiet with the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. And as I sat here pondering his article, the lack of any significant off-season storylines and how different the 2009 season was from the 2008 season, I stumbled on an article by Matt Mosley, who looks back at the 2008 season and how that season went to hell in a hand basket. I cringed a little at his conclusion that team chemistry is something that the Cowboys need to again watch closely in 2010.

I cringed not because his reasoning was faulty or because of anything he wrote. I cringed because I do that every time I read 'team chemistry' somewhere. Why? Because it's a one-size-fits-all argument that is often liberally tossed around, sounds good as a sound bite and suggests an insider understanding of team dynamics, but is a simplistic concept at best and rarely fully understood.

In 2008, the Cowboys' poor play and constant locker room drama was often blamed on the lack of team chemistry, and T.O was quickly singled out as a 'locker room cancer', reducing a simplistic concept even further and giving it a mass media compatible spin.

Jerry Jones is on record saying he firmly believes team chemistry is a by-product of the team's success, directly correlated to the number of wins in a season: "I've experienced locker rooms that look dysfunctional on the face of it and won world championships. In a pecking order of important things about your team, that is very low on the list", or as John Madden more eloquently phrased it: "Winning is a great deodorant." It covers up the stink but - but it doesn't remove it.

So who's right? And does team chemistry have anything to do with performance?

Strange happenings in the AFC West

Team chemistry has been on my mind a lot as I pondered some strange recent happenings in the AFC West. It started in early 2009 when new Chiefs GM Scott Pioli announced his philosophy of "The Right 53" and how he was going to build the team: "It’s not necessarily the best 53 players - it’s the right 53 players". Not the most talented, not the best, not the most exciting - just the 'right' ones. I wonder how they measure 'rightness', or would that be 'righteousness'?

Now, I'm no expert on the Chiefs, and in ways that escape me somewhat, theirs may be a sound strategy. But I've got to wonder how much the strategy was influenced by the then soon-to-be-hired Chiefs Head Coach Todd Haley and his experience with T.O. in Dallas. Kansas City is the only team the currently employment-seeking T.O. has categorically ruled out so far: "Me and Todd Haley, we don't get along," Owens said of Haley, who was T.O's WR coach in Dallas in 2006. Okay, I'm being a little facetious here, but bear with me.

The second head-scratcher comes courtesy of the Broncos and their draft this year: With their first pick, the Broncos made the second best wide receiver the first wide receiver taken in the draft (Thank you, thank you, thank you). With their second pick, they established a completely new draft pick category. You know how the question during the draft is always about drafting for need vs. drafting for value? Well, the Broncos apparently drafted for character.

McDaniels thus continued a strategy of bringing in players with good character after he had alienated and subsequently shipped out of town the team's first three picks from the 2006 draft in Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler.

Again, before I get some angry Broncos or Chiefs trolls hunting me down, I'm not close enough to either team to judge whether their strategies will ultimately work or not, but from the outside looking in, it sure does look mighty strange.

Can't we all just get along?

For me, the two examples above, simplified though they admittedly are, are examples of how many organizations function today. Many organizations - be it teams, companies, schools, religious organizations, you name it - often place harmony over conflict, measure success through achieving consensus instead of results and value acquiescence over critical thinking.


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Think before you drink

As a result, many of us have come to accept as fact some organizational feel-good myths: You produce better results in a harmonious working environment; teams with strong personal friendships work better; if everybody would just get along, everything will be ok.

When somebody passes you that pitcher of feel-good Kool Aid, I urge you: Think before you drink!

There is an abundance of organizational and management literature available that shows that the alternative to conflict is usually not agreement but apathy and disengagement, that harmony and good decision making are often polar opposites and that without conflict, groups often lose their effectiveness.

The trick here is to move beyond the notion that all teammates have to be friends or high character guys and instead channel group dynamics - dynamics that occur when members of the team work together - into a united effort to accomplish the goals and objectives of the whole team.

Look no further than the Cowboys of the early 1990's. It is amazing how dysfunctional the Cowboys were during that period, yet they still managed to become probably the best franchise in sports in their time.

There was no shortage of different and explosive personalities on the '90s Cowboys teams. Take a guy like Charles Haley. Clearly a couple of screws short of a tool set, yet welcomed to the Cowboys with open arms because he helped the team do one thing: Win.

That was the overriding goal and shared task for everyone that was a part of the Cowboys dynasty. To win and win again.

Team Chemistry or Team Cohesion

A common distinction in group dynamics made by behavioral scientists in social and sport psychology is between task cohesion and social cohesion.

Task cohesion refers to the shared commitment among team members to achieving a goal that requires the collective efforts of the team. A team with high task cohesion is composed of members who share a common goal and who are motivated to coordinate their efforts as a team to achieve that goal. For example, when we say that Tony Romo and Miles Austin 'are on the same page' we are effectively stating that they possess a high degree of task cohesion.

Social cohesion refers to the nature and quality of the emotional bonds of friendship, liking, caring, and closeness among team members. A team displays high social cohesion to the extent that its members like each other, prefer to spend their social time together, enjoy each other's company and feel emotionally close to one another – or start a heavy metal band called Free Reign.

Social cohesion, in other words, refers to whether group members like each other, while task cohesion refers to whether they share the same goals.

(Definitions taken from "Unit Cohesion and the Military Mission", Dr. Gregory M. Herek, USC)


"

Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan."


- Tom Landry

Many studies, both military and civilian, concluded that it is task cohesion - not social cohesion or "group pride" or "team spirit" - that drives group or team performance. Specifically, if a team has a high level of task cohesion, meaning that they play well together and remain united in the pursuit of the team's goals, then they are more likely to enjoy success.

Social cohesion on the other hand - an admirable team quality and certainly good for many players' emotional well-being - has not been shown to have a positive correlation with team success.

Where do the Cowboys stand?

Task cohesion and accountability go hand in hand. They're both about setting the expectation, clearly communicating it, and then holding yourself and everyone within your sphere of influence responsible for the outcomes expected of you, both good and bad.

Cowboys exhibits A, B and C: Dave Campo literally getting in Terence Newman's face during the Redskins game. Coaches yanking players from reps for false starts and other mistakes, heck, even Jason Witten got yanked for false starts in practice last year. Wade Phillips continuing to stress the importance of getting things 'exactly right' in practice last year and in OTA's this year:

"We need to clean some things up," Phillips said, "but this is the first day of it and we'll do it again tomorrow and we'll do it until we do it right."

Tony Romo summed up best how task cohesion and accountability helped the team last year:

"It's very easy in this profession to look at somebody else and blame," Romo said. "It's almost difficult to make yourself accountable to the rest of the guys. But when trouble arrived, we stayed committed to the plan. There wasn't all the little bickering and guys stayed committed to the team."

Task cohesion is also about making the right personnel decisions for the team, and not playing favorites. Playing Kevin Ogletree over Sam Hurd, initially splitting starts between Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins as both appeared good enough to play, even the 'flozelling' of T.O. last year as well as Adams and Hamlin this year. Roy Williams though - don't know how to explain that one.

Social cohesion on the other hand, I couldn't care less about. Typically this is the 'human interest angle' that reporters try to pounce on to give their reports more 'color'. Take our three running backs, and the as yet unclear ranking of the three: It is virtually guaranteed that almost every day during training camp some breathless and overeager young thing will ask any of the three RBs a question like "How has this competition affected your friendship/personal relationship?", hoping fervently that this question will lead straight to a Pulitzer.

Who cares? As long as all three continue trying to become the best halfback each can possibly be, they could send each other pink colored love letters for Valentines Day for all I care. Or, you know, go to Cabo or something.

At the end of the day, we're discussing an intangible. It is impossible to measure accurately. But you will know it when you see it.

(Note: parts of this article appeared as a fanpost last year, but I thought it was worth examining the topic again)

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