How Teams Can Improve Performance by Measuring Culture – Part One

By Marcus Colby and Markus Deutsch

We see it every year – as the championship team lifts the prized trophy and the reporter asks “What was your secret” to which the coach replies “we just have such a great culture here”.

Of course, there are many factors that determine the progress and ultimate success of any sports, military, or other team including talent, resources, leadership, and strategy. Yet one of the hardest factors to measure and improve is culture.

While elite sports teams are leaving no stone unturned to fight for the “one percenters” in areas such as sport science, we may be missing an opportunity for double digit performance improvements in areas such as culture. In this article, we’ll explore how some groups are utilizing technology to gauge the impact of their culture and how this relates to building sustainable excellence on and off the field.

WHAT DOES “CULTURE” MEAN?
Culture can be defined in numerous ways, but the most relevant definition in this context is “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group”. In simple terms it can be seen as development of a group identity fostered by social interactions unique to that group.

Culture is key in making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In a high-performance environment, culture is determined not only by the behaviors and norms of a collective, but also the knowledge, capabilities, and habits of the individuals within it.

It’s quite challenging to measure culture because humans are nuanced individuals and when they work in groups, it’s even more complex with many different personalities, ideologies, agendas, contexts, and philosophies coming together. Multi-level interactions can create either a positive culture that promotes success and the feeling that every person is valued and respected, or a negative culture that has an adverse impact on results and leaves people feeling disregarded and isolated.

WHY CULTURE COUNTS
Culture doesn’t exist in isolation but can have a large impact on team performance and the commitment and contentment of the squad and staff. If all athletes/service members and the leaders who guide them believe in the vision, know their role, are dedicated to being the best version of themselves, and are confident to put their ideas out there, they will have set themselves and the organization up for ongoing and repeatable success.

It’s not enough to say, “We have a strong culture” or post inspirational quotes in the weight and locker rooms. You have to live culture out every day which, like physical performance, requires strategy, planning, and disciplined execution.

For example, a team might state that they center their culture around a healthy work/life balance, but if the performance and coaching staffs are being pressured to work 80-hour weeks and athletes are driven into the ground on the training field, then there’s a disconnect between what’s preached and practiced. In which case, the dissonance has to be identified and corrected so that the organization can get back on track and perpetuate a positive culture rather than a negative one.

Measuring culture using a data management platform such as Smartabase can enable groups to clearly identify these types of misalignment between stated core values, cultural tenets, and actual behaviors and habits.

WHAT ARE SOME COMMON TRAITS OF WINNING CULTURES?
There are many ways to potentially assess which cultures are more and less successful. Yet if we study success – not only in dominant sports teams like the New Zealand All Blacks, Barcelona FC, and the Golden State Warriors, but also in elite military units and pioneering companies – we start to see some commonalities emerge. These include:

Aligned vision – does everyone view success in the same way and are you all in to pursue it with maximum effort?
Clearly defined ownership across the program – are there people responsible for setting and achieving clear dream and outcome goals and having a plan to get there?
Ambition – are you always striving to do your very best, day in and day out?
Vulnerability – will you openly share when you need help and be candid with the group?
Trust – do you believe that your teammates and coaches have your best interests at heart and want to see you succeed?
Accountability – does everybody from the head coach/commander down practice extreme ownership, share the credit, and take responsibility when they make mistakes?
Selflessness – are you willing to put yourself on the line for your teammates and coaches, and to sacrifice to help them make the most of their potential?
Mentoring/development – are you being filled up by mentors and, in turn, willingly sharing your expertise and past successes and failures to give the next generation a path to follow in your footsteps, even if you’re worried that they may eventually leave and take their talents elsewhere?
Continual improvement – have you bought into constantly trying to improve in both big and small things, and are you dedicated to the relentless pursuit of better in your team’s unique version of what University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban calls “The Process”?
Best practices – are you constantly looking to what the best in your field are doing, and applying these lessons to your organization as you seek continual improvement?
Winning off the field – do you look beyond the win and loss columns and commit to growing people who are physically, mentally, and emotionally thriving in all areas of their life?
Communication – is there constant collaboration and dialog between specialties, and do you feel confident that your voice will be heard and your own expertise recognized and validated?
Caring – are you part of a people-first organization that takes care of its own, no matter what?
Legacy – are you committed to leaving the jersey/uniform better off than you found it?

HOW TO EVALUATE CULTURE
The field of assessing culture is still very much in its infancy, particularly in sports. Much of the technology in this area – such as smart speakers that can record conversations and then use AI to gauge what people’s tone of voice says about their attitude toward their teammates – is available but is still in its early stages.

That being said, there are a couple of ways teams/units can start taking a closer look at what’s working and what can be improved in their culture. Surveys can help take the temperature of an organization’s culture and shine a light on any issues so they can be addressed by leadership before they become irreparable problems. Much like objective metrics like sleep scores and HRV can provide a window into what’s going on under the hood of each athlete, so too can subjective survey data be useful in measuring culture and bringing values and actions back into alignment.

This not only has the potential to make a positive impact on game day or battlefield performance but can also allow leaders to do their jobs more effectively and increase retention by making people happier in their day-to-day roles. Every team has its ups and downs, particularly when adversity strikes. But it’s the groups who come together and rally around a strong, durable culture that weather the storms best.

Check back soon for part two, in which we’ll explore other ways your team can measure its culture and, ultimately, improve it.

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, YOU MAY ALSO LIKE…
How Data Drives a Winning Culture
Student-Athlete Mental Health: A Case for Collecting Subjective Data
How to Get More Consistent Data into Your AMS

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