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Storytelling and Great Teams + When Outcomes Define Success

April 25, 2018


Interesting Thought: Storytelling and Great Teams 


The Philadelphia 76ers are on a roll. Having just steamrolled the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs, there's a good case to be made that the Sixers are the hottest team in basketball right now. The Sixers are firing on cylinders, completely in sync. And yet a big part of what the Sixers are doing on the court might result from what they've been doing off of it. 

A longform article that just ran on profiles how the team has embraced and formalized storytelling. At least once a month, one of the players gives a presentation on something important to him. "The Sixers have embraced a basic human truth -- people want to tell their stories -- and turned it into a team-building exercise," writes Kevin Arnovitz. 

In the words of the Sixers' coach Brett Brown: "The talks are far-reaching. Each of the topics, each of the presentations, each offers some level of entertainment, some funny, some sad, some humorous. It's another layer to developing and growing culture, and people. And it's been a wonderful experience, and I think I achieved the goal that I wanted when we implemented the program." 

Many hard-ass coaches, managers, and teachers may believe these soft exercises are a valueless waste of time. They are wrong. Far more than just holding hands and singing kumbaya, the Sixers are developing what psychologists call psychological safety, or an environment of deep respect and trust. And there's tons of research that psychological safety leads to better and longer-lasting group performance. 

This shouldn't be surprising. It's not rocket science. When you really know someone—all of them, even (perhaps especially) the quirky and vulnerable parts—the more likely you are to get along with and vibe with that person. And the more likely you are to trust that person, too. And trust is perhaps the most important element of great teams. 

Brene Brown, who researches human nature at the University of Houston, says that "We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and [true] selves to be known."

Vulnerability doesn't come from trust. Trust comes from vulnerability.

Steve and I know this firsthand. You may think our deepest bond is over the science of human performance and our coaching and our book. But that's not the case. Steve and I are far more bonded over Steve's opening up to me about the scary times in his life with regards to being a whistleblower in allegations of cheating against Nike's Oregon Project and my opening up to Steve and using him as a bedrock of support when I'm struggling with my OCD. I truly believe these conversations and situations are, by far, the most important elements of our working relationship—though from a formal standpoint, they have little to do with our work together. 

Before this, when I was at McKinsey and Company, each and every project would start with a half-day internal "meeting" simply called a "Team Learning." All the consultants, engagement managers, and partners would spend 3 to 4 hours just talking about themselves and sharing their stories. This meeting probably cost at least $20,000 (in time) but it was always viewed as well worth it because of the way it helped teams gel.

Forget Steve and I. If the Sixers and McKinsey are doing it, so can you. If you are at all in the business of team-building—be it in sports, school, the workplace, a new partnership, or even in the family—I'd encourage you to be intentional about creating space for everyone involved to share their stores, to express their true selves. These conversations can be (and often are) uncomfortable at first, but the end result is almost always a more deep and lasting comfort. Sure, that may translate to additional wins on the court and greater efficiency, but far more important it also translates to a richer, more authentic, and more fulfilling team experience. 

A Few Resources That Have Helped Me With This Topic

  • A great book by the world's preeminent researcher on psychological safety on the tactics of how to build it in a genuine manner. Teaming.

  • Two great books on vulnerability by Brene Brown. Rising Strong and Daring Greatly.

  • A brief article I wrote for Outside on the topic. High Performance Cultures


Coaching Corner: When Outcomes Define Success:

We live in a hypercompetitive world, where the game never truly ends. We can measure productivity in any myriad of ways and instantly compare ourselves to any number of individuals scattered across the world. No longer do you measure up against Johnny from high school or Jim in the cubicle next door; you are now in competition against practically everyone.

For humans who function off of comparison, this may initially boost our performance, but it's just as likely to be entirely maddening. As we've transitioned into competing in every aspect of life—from followers on twitter to "productivity" scores from our computer work to our health score spit out by our smart watch—the temptation is to treat life as we do sport, with the emphasis on getting faster and stronger, taking more wins, and then judging ourselves entirely by those parameters. By shifting how we judge ourselves, we've also shifted the story that we tell ourselves.

When it comes to sport, researchers have found that athletes adopt one of two kinds of narratives: a performance or a quest. A performance narrative occurs when the athlete prioritizes winning over other aspects of life. Performance comes first and foremost. Whether that is winning games, scoring goals, running faster, or making more money; the outcome is all that matters.

A quest narrative, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential growth from diverse experiences. It involves "individuals confronting their suffering, accepting the consequences, and striving to gain something positive from their experience." In other words, the emphasis isn't put on the outcome, but on the journey. Yes, the outcome still matters, but it becomes a signaling mechanism, not the be all end all.

Performance narratives are ingrained in us from a young age but they can lead to maladaptation when we encounter adversity. Because if performance is the sole judge, when failure occurs, people often register this not as failure at a specific task but failure at life. If an athlete has a quest narrative, the outcome becomes information, and the "failure" becomes something to understand and grow from, not a self-defining setback.

In Olympic swimmers, researchers found that as athletes matured in their careers, they tended to shift from a performance to a quest narrative. Early on in their career, outcomes were all that mattered, and they let their sport consume all aspects of their life. While one might think that their performance might suffer in the pool as they shifted their focus, the opposite occurred. For Olympic Swimmer Ryk Neethling, it made all the difference; "walking away gave me perspective...but for that fresh perspective, I may not have become an Olympic Champion."

As competition infiltrates every aspect of our life, there can be a temptation to embrace it, mistakenly thinking that we need to 'raise our game' in order to survive and thrive. The reality is that we might want to take a hint from Olympic swimmers: sometimes to reach the next level (and to enjoy what you do!), you've got to let go of the false idea that outcomes are all that matter.


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