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Building Peak-Performance Cultures – Part Three (Stakeholder Engagement)

February 28, 2020
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If you intend to build a culture of peak performance, our research indicates you must engage all your stakeholders, not just your shareholders. In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle uses 21st-century research and neuroscience to explain how great cultures are built and stakeholders engaged. Below is material paraphrased from Coyle’s book.

Greg Popovich is arguably the best NBA coach of the modern era. Sportswriter Neil Paine designed an algorithm to predict how many games a team should win. He crunched numbers for every NBA coach since 1979 in order to measure “wins above expectation”— that is, the number of times a coach’s team won a game that, measured by their players’ skills, they had no business winning.

Most coaches win roughly the number of games they should win, given their players’ abilities—except for one. Popovich resides alone at the far reaches of the graph, a planet unto himself. Under his leadership, the Spurs have won no fewer than 117 games more than they should have, a rate more than double that of the next-nearest coach. The Spurs rank as the most successful team in American sports over the last two decades, winning five championships and a higher percentage of games than the New England Patriots, the St. Louis Cardinals, or any other storied franchise. The title of Paine’s graph is “Gregg Popovich Is Impossible.”

It’s not hard to figure out why Popovich’s teams win, because the evidence is in plain view on the court. The Spurs consistently perform the thousand little unselfish behaviors: the extra pass, the alert defense, the tireless hustle—that puts the team’s interest above their own. “Selfless,” LeBron James said. “Guys move, cut, pass, you’ve got a shot, you take it. But it’s all for the team and it’s never about the individual.” Playing against them, said Marcin Gortat of the Washington Wizards, “was like listening to Mozart.” What’s hard to figure out is how Popovich does it.

This is more impressive when you consider that selfishness is incentivized in the NBA. In 2013, researchers analyzed nine seasons worth of NBA games, comparing behavior in the regular season with behavior in the play-offs. They discovered that players who made a shot in the play-offs received $22,044.55 additional salary per field goal made. Players who passed the ball to a teammate who made a shot lost $6,116.69. Passing the ball instead of shooting is the equivalent of handing a teammate $28,161.24.

Popovich, sixty-eight, is a hard-core, old-school, unapologetic authoritarian, a steel-spined product of the Air Force Academy who values discipline above all. His disposition has been compared to that of a dyspeptic bulldog, and he possesses a temper that could be described as “volcanic,” with much of the lava being funneled at his star players. How does a cranky, demanding coach create the most cohesive team?

One common answer is that the Spurs are smart about drafting and developing unselfish, hardworking, team-oriented individuals. But on closer examination, this explanation doesn’t add up. The Spurs are not simply selecting unselfish players or forcing them to play this way. Something is making their players—even those who were selfish elsewhere—behave unselfishly when they put on a Spurs jersey. The question is what that something is.

On April 13, 2014, the Spurs suffered one of their most devastating losses to the OKC Thunder, and it occurred largely because of unforced errors by Marco Belinelli. On the morning of the 14th, Gregg Popovich walked into the gym. He moved around, talking to players. He touched them on the elbow, the shoulder, the arm. He laughed. His eyes were bright, knowing, active. When he reached Belinelli, his smile gets bigger and more lopsided. He exchanged a few words, and when Belinelli joked back, they engaged in a brief mock-wrestling match. It was a strange sight. A white-haired coach wrestling a curly-haired six-foot-five Italian.

C. Buford, the Spurs’ general manager, who has worked with Popovich for twenty years was not surprised. “He wanted to make sure Belinelli was okay. That’s the way Pop approaches every relationship. He fills their cups.”
When Popovich wants to connect with a player, he moves in tight enough that their noses nearly touch; it’s almost like a challenge—an intimacy contest. As warm-ups continue, he keeps roving, connecting. A former player walks up, and Popovich beams, his face lighting up in a toothy grin. They talk for five minutes, catching up on life, kids, and teammates. “Love you, brother,” Popovich says as they part.

“A lot of coaches can yell or be nice, but what Pop does is different,” says assistant coach Chip Engelland. “He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death.”

The Spurs had gathered in the video room to review the game. They had sat down with trepidation, expecting Popovich to berate them. Then Popovich clicked on the video, a CNN documentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. When it was over, Popovich asked questions. He always asks questions, and those questions are always the same: personal, direct, focused on the big picture. What did you think of it? What would you have done in that situation?

The players thought, answered, nodded. The room shifted and became something of a seminar, a conversation. They talked. They were not surprised because on the Spurs this kind of thing happens all the time. Popovich would create similar conversations on the war in Syria, or a change of government in Argentina, gay marriage, institutional racism, terrorism—it doesn’t really matter, as long as it delivers the message he wants it to deliver: There are bigger things than basketball to which we are all connected.

“It’s so easy to be insulated when you’re a professional athlete,” Buford says. “Pop uses these moments to connect us. He loves that we come from so many different places. That could pull us apart, but he makes sure that everybody feels connected and engaged to something bigger.” “Hug ’em and hold ’em” is the way Popovich often puts it to his assistant coaches. “We gotta hug ’em and hold ’em.”

One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is rarely the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core, their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be. Larry Page created one of these moments when he posted his “These ads suck” note in the Google kitchen. Popovich delivers such feedback to his players every day, usually at high volume. But how do Popovich and other leaders manage to give tough, truthful feedback without causing side effects of dissent and disappointment? What is the best feedback made of?

A few years back a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, and Columbia had middle school students write an essay, after which teachers provided different kinds of feedback. Researchers discovered that one particular form of feedback boosted student effort and performance so immensely that they deemed it “magical feedback.” Students who received it chose to revise their papers far more often than students who did not, and their performance improved significantly. The feedback was not complicated. In fact, it consisted of one simple phrase.

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

That’s it. Just nineteen words. None of these words contain any information on how to improve. Yet they are powerful because they deliver a burst of belonging cues. Actually, when you look more closely at the sentence, it contains three separate cues:

You are part of this group.
This group is special; we have high standards here.
I believe you can reach those standards.
These signals provide a clear message that lights up the unconscious brain: Here is a safe place to give effort. They also give us insight into the reason Popovich’s methods are effective. His communications consist of three types of belonging cues.

Personal, up-close connection (body language, attention, and behavior that translates as I care about you)

Performance feedback (relentless coaching and criticism that translates as We have high standards here)

Big-picture perspective (larger conversations about politics, history, and food that translate as Life is bigger than basketball)

Popovich toggles among the three signals to connect his team the way a skilled director uses a camera. First, he zooms in close, creating an individualized connection. Then he operates in the middle distance, showing players the truth about their performance. Then he pans out to show the larger context in which their interaction is taking place. Alone, each of these signals would have a limited effect. But together they create a steady stream of magical feedback. Every dinner, every elbow touch, every impromptu seminar on politics and history adds up to build a relational narrative: You are part of this group. This group is special. I believe you can reach those standards. In other words, Popovich’s yelling works, in part, because it is not just yelling. It is delivered along with a suite of other cues that affirm and strengthen the fabric of the relationships.

Popovich stood and greeted every player as they came through the door. Some got a hug, some got a smile, some got a joke or a light touch on the arm. The wine flowed. They sat and ate together. Popovich moved around the room, connecting with each player in turn. People later said he behaved like the father of a bride at a wedding, taking time with everyone, thanking them, appreciating them. There were no speeches, just a series of intimate conversations. In a moment that could have been filled with frustration, recrimination, and anger, he filled their cups. They talked about the game. Some of them cried. They began to come out of their private silences, to get past the loss and to connect. They even laughed.“I remember watching him do that, and I couldn’t believe it,” R. C. Buford says. “By the end of the night, things felt almost normal. We were a team again. It’s the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen in sports, bar none.