One of the themes that can get overlooked when discussing the creation of great team cultures is personal connection; the way leaders demonstrate a genuine human interest in the welfare of their players and staff.
In business, it is generally accepted that those who take time to cultivate strong relationships with their colleagues experience higher levels of job satisfaction and fulfilment. As Rob Cross wrote in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “Studies show that social connections play a central role in fostering a sense of purpose and wellbeing in the workplace. They also impact the bottom line: Effective management of social capital within organizations facilitates learning and knowledge sharing, increases employee retention and engagement, reduces burnout, sparks innovation, and improves employee and organizational performance.”
In essence, strong personal connections benefit all facets of an organization’s culture.
Strong Connections, Strong Performance
Even though relationship building is rarely spoken of as a primary success factor in sports, the deeper we dig into the cultural practices of teams that have achieved sustained success, the more apparent it becomes that they all prioritize the simple act of making people feel valued.
Of course, personal connections within sports organizations are rarely created for the sake of it (although there’s nothing wrong with that); the end goal is to create a team that is able to translate its off-field coherence into on-field performance.
In a 2017 interview with CNBC, Bill Belichick, the legendary New England Patriots head coach, succinctly explained the relationship between pastoral care and athletic performance.
“There are a lot of things that affect what happens on the field that occur off the field,” he explained. “Players have wives and girlfriends. And they have babies and they have personal situations. They have parents that are sick. All of it runs together. The more you and the organization can help take care of personal situations, the smoother the ship runs on the football end.”
A good deal of academic research is in agreement with Belichick’s assessment. For example, a 2019 paper from RMIT University in Australia stated that quality relationships can induce positive psychological changes that improve adaptation to stress and enhance performance. But what does that type of care and intentional relationship-building look like in practice?
At the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA franchise famed for its inclusive and accountable culture, head coach Gregg Popovich takes it upon himself to lead the way when it comes to building strong bonds with players and staff. Of course, he does this in his own unique way, using his obsession with food and drink to engage with his colleagues.
“Food and wine aren’t just food and wine,” explained Spurs CEO R.C. Buford in a TIME magazine article from 2018. “They’re his vehicle to make and sustain a connection, and Pop is really intentional about making that connection happen.”
In the same article, Sean Marks, a former assistant coach with the Spurs and now general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, explains how Popovich builds connections with players and staff whenever he has the opportunity.
“You’ll be sitting on the plane, and all of a sudden a magazine lands on your lap, and you look up and it’s Pop,” said Marks. “He’s circled some article about your hometown and wants to know if it’s accurate, and where you like to eat, and what kind of wine you like to drink. And pretty soon he’s making reservations for you and your wife or girlfriend. Then you go, and he wants to know all about it, what wine you had, what you ordered, and then there’s another place to go. That’s how it starts. And it never ends.”
Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp is another high-profile leader who prioritizes the creation of strong connections with his players. For Klopp, the key is to take a genuine interest in each individual, not simply to go through the motions.
“I don’t pretend I’m interested. I am interested,” he told the Press Association in March 2020. “It’s important to know who you are working with and it’s important to know why somebody is determined and motivated. I think I need to know them. That’s what creates a relationship. They can talk to me and it’s always important.”
By genuinely caring about the welfare of his players, Klopp is generating huge levels of engagement within the club. According to Gallup’s 2016 Meta-Analysis Report, engagement of that nature is the currency of performance. In fact, the report showed that businesses in the top quartile for employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile businesses by 17% in productivity, 20% in sales, and 21% in profitability. One of the conclusions of the study was that employee engagement is largely a reflection of the actions of managers. The way leaders connect with their players can have a material effect on performance.
Building Mutual Trust
Much of the relationship-building epitomized by Popovich and Klopp often goes unseen. After all, it doesn’t need to take the form of grand gestures to be effective, it can be as simple as a few wisely chosen words. As the 11-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson once said, “I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men in the room.”
The strongest connections are more often than not created through small but consistent acts of kindness and solidarity that create the foundations for the mutual trust and appreciation that are central to a healthy, sustainable, and successful team culture.