Drive exceptional performance – as a sports team or a family?

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During your lifetime, you’ll spend over 90,000 hours at work, or around a fifth of your life. 

It’s therefore really important we enjoy the time we spend earning a living, and it’s not surprising we want to bring some of the great qualities of our personal life with us into work. 

We often hear people talk about whether a great team at work is more akin to a sports team or a family, but what’s the reality?

Sports teams are focused on a shared ambition

A sports team swarms around a shared ambition, and there’s a bond and camaraderie because of it. People are motivated knowing their individual work contributes to the team’s purpose. Every activity that isn’t working towards achieving the ambition is considered a distraction. In his book, ‘Will it make the boat go faster’, Olympic gold medalist Ben Hunt-Davis talks about the relentless focus his team had on winning, and how they managed activities they considered to be distracting them from their goal.

Individuals earn their positions in a sports team. Players with a variety of skills and strengths come together to create the optimal team. There’s no confusion about the roles each individual plays, just like when a business team is working well – you won’t find a marketeer trying to process expenses. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made, moving people in and out of the team in line with the skills the sports team needs at that point in time.

Families provide a feeling of safety

However, it’s easy to see why some of us want to think of our colleagues as a work-family. Families are knitted together with warmth, traditions, acceptance and forgiveness. In the best of times, they share life’s experiences, have fun together and support each other.

But there are some real risks with treating your work colleagues as though they are family.

Think back to how the optimal sports team comprises selected individuals bringing critical skills together to deliver an ambition. We see this in business too. We need different capabilities and roles when we’re a company of 20 compared to when we scale or have 1,000+ employees. That means sometimes, it’s time for people (who have been a huge asset earlier in the journey) to move on. Although a natural part of building a team, it’s a hard truth – made more difficult when you need to fire someone you think of as family.

Families are more likely to tolerate bad behaviour and poor effort than is appropriate in a work environment. The unconditional love of a family means you put up with quite a bit of nonsense at times. You can’t do that in an organisation. You can’t tolerate bad behaviours or poor levels of effort as it quickly impacts on performance and culture.

Finally, families often take loyalty to the extreme, often to the benefit of the family. A level of loyalty is commendable at work, but you don’t want employees so loyal they’re unable to see creative opportunities and unwilling to challenge. It can impact an organisation’s responsiveness to market changes, financial conditions, and ultimately customers.

Sports teams lead with a focus on performance

When you’re in a great team, you do experience the best (but appropriate) bits of being part of a family – the strong bonds, sharing the highs and lows of the journey, knowing you belong.

But ultimately being at work is about achieving a collective ambition. It’s about performance, and therefore a high-performing work team is like a sports team, and not a family.

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Jacqueline Shakespeare
Written by Jacqueline Shakespeare
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