Is it possible to have high-performing teams that are also fun and exciting to work with? Not only do I believe that it is, I believe we recently received a marvelous example of it.

I earned my Ph.D. from Baylor University. Baylor is a great school that hasn’t always had great leadership. One key exception to that has been Scott Drew, the current men’s basketball coach. Drew has developed a powerful culture in the men’s basketball program. That culture was on full display during the Bears recent run to the national championship.

Drew talks about that culture as a culture of JOY. He references back to an early “Sunday School” lesson about putting Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. The team demonstrated that culture by playing unselfishly and by celebrating the actions of any member of the team that did something exciting, from the stars all the way down to the walk-ons. Drew’s approach runs counter to many in the sports world. It’s also counter-cultural in the business world. Yet in both areas, teams that are built Drew’s way seem to be working. Hopefully, most Christians won’t find that too surprising. After all, it was the way Jesus said the system works.

Letters spelling JOY in a table

I don’t know the inner details of what helped make Baylor such a cohesive team, but I will share some of the strategies that seem to be working best in organizations. I am indebted here to Charles Duhig, who has put some of the research findings around this together in his marvelous book Smarter Faster Better.

1. People work better when they believe their teammates and bosses are committed to their success.

Building a culture where people can genuinely celebrate other people’s successes is a great step toward creating a great team. One of my favorite moments in the championship game was watching Davion Mitchell, who was supposed to be resting on the bench, jumping up and down with joy celebrating a clutch shot by a teammate.

2. Create psychological safety by combining a willingness to give everyone a voice, a commitment to listen to each other, and an openness to say hard things that need to be said.

Psychological safety doesn’t come when everyone always agrees. It comes when people know they can disagree but remain a valued member of the team. While this would be an area where we couldn’t see the inner working of the Baylor team, we could see how the team supported each other even when players made mistakes, but also pushed each other to get better when the game situation got challenging.

3. People tend to be more motivated when they feel they are in control and when they feel their individual actions matter.

Bosses often feel that the team works best when the boss makes the decisions. That is ego talking, not the research. Drew has sometimes been criticized for giving teams too much autonomy. Yet part of the joy the team played with clearly came from his trust in his players. Mark Vital is only 6’5”, not large playing on the inside in college basketball. Yet, he had eight offensive rebounds in the championship game. Gonzaga’s entire team had five. That is mostly about full-throttle effort. Watching Vital play, it was obvious he believed his role mattered.

4. The most successful teams are built around a commitment to shared values.

Star-driven teams can be successful—sometimes extremely so. However, they also tend to flame out more quickly. Teams built around a commitment to shared values tend to have longer-term success and get better results from the full team. Kentucky’s 1996 team of stars was close to unstoppable and drove to a championship rather easily. However, the “one and done” player focus that Kentucky has practiced has not been consistently successful. It remains to be seen whether Drew can sustain championship-level success, but he has clearly built a team that buys into the value of unselfish play.

Soccer team celebrating together

There are no guarantees of success in life. As good as the team and the culture was, Baylor still lost two games this year. At the same time, there are principles that work better than others. If you’re trying to put together a successful culture, creating a safe and unselfish culture where people feel free to work within a set of shared values is a good way to start.

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