On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Is Your Work Team Like the 2013 Boston Red Sox?

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

The 2013 Red Sox won 97 regular season games and went on to win the World Series. In comparison, the 2012 Red Sox finished dead last in the American League East and won only 69 games. That's the largest turnaround in major league baseball history. How did it happen?

Here are nine lessons learned from the 2013 Sox, followed by the "is my team like the Red Sox" quiz...Sox win

Let me acknowledge that I'm a lifetime Red Sox fan – so I'm a biased observer. Like all Red Sox fans, I've suffered through years of heartache and more recently experienced the joy of winning three championships in ten years. Sure, we can learn from losing, but here's what we can glean from this year's winning team.

And as always, I'll highlight a few research findings along the way.

Lesson 1. You need enough team members who possess a "collective orientation."

Collective orientation is a term psychologists use to describe a person who likes being on a team and puts the team first. Research shows that collective orientation predicts team performance in a variety of tasks.

The Red Sox radically changed their roster between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. In one trade alone they trimmed over $200 million in salaries. They also signed a few new players. The result is that the 2013 roster had far fewer players with "me first" tendencies (e.g., Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford) and far more players with a strong collective orientation (e.g., Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino). Unlike the 2012 team, there were little or no complaints from players about playing time or where they were placed in the batting order. The balance had tipped from me to us.

In contrast, Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest Red Sox hitter of all time, was known as a "me first" guy. His teams won no championships.

Lesson 2. But you still need talented people who can perform their jobs.

Let's be clear, the 2013 Sox were not lacking individual talent. They had talented ball players who could do their jobs well. But they weren't more talented than many prior Sox teams. Talent is necessary, but not sufficient for being a great team.

Lesson 3. Choose and train your team so they are able to backup one another.

Ben Cherington, the Red Sox general manager, made sure that there was ample depth on the roster and that players could fill in for one another. They retained several players who could play multiple positions and they trained others (e.g., Daniel Nava) to be able to fill in at positions they hadn't played in the past. As I noted in a prior blog post, backup is critical for many teams.

Lesson 4. Cohesion and passion give a team a big boost.

A prior Sox team was given the tagline, "25 players, 25 cabs" because they would get off the team plane and head in separate directions. In contrast, this year's Red Sox had a strong sense of cohesion. They appeared to seek opportunities to spend time together. For example, players and coaches would get together to watch Monday night football, and whenever they held an "optional" team dinner during the season, almost the entire roster would show up. Research has also shown that team cohesiveness is often positively related to teamwork behaviors. I'm not suggesting that growing beards together (as the Sox did) is a sure way to build cohesiveness in your team (afterall, there were mutinies on some pirate ships), but it was a symbolic indicator of team cohesiveness on the Sox.

The Sox also demonstrated a passion for their work. After playing baseball on 17 consecutive days, they finally had a day off in Toronto. What did Jonny Gomes, Dustin Pedroia, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia do on their day off? They decided to go see the last place Toronto Blue Jays play baseball! That's being passionate about what you do. And it looks like they got good seats...

Sox on day off

Lesson 5. Collective efficacy can enhance team effectiveness.

Collective efficacy is different than self-confidence ("I can succeed") and different than cohesiveness ("I like my teammates"). It is the belief that your team can succeed. Research has shown when a team possesses collective efficacy, it increases its likelihood of success.

During the first few weeks of the 2013 season, several Red Sox players were sharing a cab, when the cab driver suddenly hit his brakes to avoid an accident. USA Today reported that Dustin Pedroia told the cab driver, "Careful buddy, you're carrying the 2013 World Series Champions." This was his belief despite just finishing in last place the prior year. In interviews throughout the year, and even in Spring Training, it was clear that team members believed that their team could win – they weren't being cocky, they just had collective efficacy.

Lesson 6. Peer leadership can be as important as formal leadership.

The 2013 Red Sox had a bunch of "peer leaders." Peer leaders are team members who have no formal leadership authority but who demonstrate leadership by modeling what is "right," providing coaching, and holding one another accountable. When a star player like Dustin Pedroia is among the first to the ball park, you end up with a culture in which the early bus to the ballpark is filled to capacity each day.

As another example of peer leadership, Daniel Nava generously gave his time mentoring rookie Xander Bogaerts about transitioning to the pros and being patient at the plate. Never mind that Nava had been acquired from an independent baseball league for one dollar while Bogaerts is the Sox most acclaimed young prospect. You can think of shared leadership as having the right person fulfill a leadership need at the right time. That could include having your most influential team member (e.g., David Ortiz) give a dugout speech – if your team has a dugout.

An interesting observation is that no one on the 2013 Red Sox was given the "C" patch that indicates they are the designated "captain" of the team. Each team member seemed to act as an informal captain at some point during the season.

Lesson 7. But having the right formal leader is critical.

The Red Sox fired their 2012 Manager, Bobby Valentine, and hired John Farrell to lead them in 2013. They swapped a very bad manager who had lost the team's trust, for a very good manager who is perceived by his team to be a good listener, a good teacher, and a good leader. And Farrell wasn't the only formal leader who helped turn the team around. Coach Brian Butterfield is widely credited with teaching Mike Napoli how to be an excellent fielding first baseman.

Lesson 8. Team members need to possess shared mental models of how they will work together.

A team is said to possess a shared mental model (SMM) when they have a common understanding about how they will work together. Shared mental models help teams coordinate and perform better on interdependent tasks. A shared mental model can be held by two players or by the entire team and often reflects an agreement about what should happen in certain circumstances. For example, the first baseman and pitcher must be on the same page about how to cover first base – so starting in Spring Training, pitchers encouraged Mike Napoli to be aggressive going after ground balls and in turn they would be aggressive covering first base.

After a loss where the opposing pitcher only needed to throw 95 pitches, the Red Sox revisited a SMM they had about being patient and taking pitches to run up the pitch count. That philosophy, which is taught throughout their minor league system, forces the opposing team to go to their bullpen sooner, bringing in less talented middle relievers. But it only works if enough players exhibit patience. An indication of this SMM: The 2013 Red Sox saw more pitches than any other team in baseball – by far. They had a common understanding of when and how to work the count.

Lesson 9. Having strong sense of purpose can elevate a team.

The Red Sox appeared to be strongly affected by the Boston Marathon bombing and embraced the cause of helping rally the city of Boston. As David Ortiz said during a moving speech after the tragedy, "This is our 'bleeping' city and no one is going to take away our freedom." All sports teams want to win – sports attracts people who like to compete. But this year, the Sox had an additional purpose -- they felt that bringing home a championship was important to the city of Boston.

Take the, "Is my team like the World Champions Red Sox" Quiz

Think about your work team. How strongly do you agree with each of the following statements related to your team's composition, culture, leadership, and shared understanding?

  1. We have enough people on our team who think "team first, me second"
  2. The people on our team have the talent to perform their jobs effectively
  3. Member of our team can and do backup and fill in for one another whenever needed
  4. Our team members find reasons to spend time with one another
  5. Our team members believe that our team will "win"
  6. The members of our team are passionate about what we do
  7. We hold one another accountable without always needing to involve our leader
  8. Our leader listens carefully to our input and provides us with the guidance we need
  9. If you asked members of our team what should happen in certain situations, we'd all give the same answers
  10. Our team is doing something important