Smiling businesswoman leading meeting in conference roomMany popular phrases have their roots in sports. For example, the cliché “there is no ‘i’ in team” comes from the idea that a cohesive team of players is more likely to win games than a collection of individual superstars. Players are told to focus on the team’s overall success rather than their individual performance. The corollary to this idea is that stars who are high maintenance cause unrest in locker rooms which, in turn, causes poor performance in games.

Neither of these ideas is necessarily true in sports or in business. In a book titled ‘There Is an I in Team’, Cambridge Business School Professor Mark de Rond explores a variety of research studies and comes to the conclusion that a focus on interpersonal harmony can actually hurt team performance. Talented team members self-censor their contributions to keep the peace. In fact, the book quotes a Harvard study which found that “grumpy orchestras played […] better than orchestras in which all the musicians were quite happy”.

The book examines why it’s so hard to get teams to realize their potential and how to enable individuals to work more effectively on teams. Here’s Prof de Rond summarizing his findings:


According to another Harvard study cited in the book, creating a team of overachievers is not necessarily the best way to maximize performance. The study of sell-side equity analysts found overall performance started to suffer when the percentage of stars rose above a certain level. “Don’t overspend to recruit high-status employees,” concludes this research; “stars work best in a supportive network of competent performers.”

All of this reminds me that comparisons between sports and businesses can be tricky. I’m sure it’s difficult for sports managers to figure out the optimal mix of stars and team players but at least the goals are clear and the team members’ results are easy to measure. In business, the goals are many and individual contribution tough to prove.

Whether you believe in stars or teams, my advice is to pay attention to the outcomes. As Michael Jordan famously once said, there may be no letter ‘i’ in the word team but there is an ‘i’ in win.

This blog was originally posted on Manage By Walking Around on May 5, 2013.