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Winning, Losing, and Collaboration

September 7, 2011

Many posts on this site over the past few weeks make it clear that collaboration is critical to high performance in organizations today. But how does performance affect collaboration? In sports, it is a truism that winning can temporarily overcome various problems between teammates. For instance, the relationship between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal was strained while they were teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers, even during their three consecutive NBA championship seasons. However, when the team was winning, the tension dissipated and the pair got along better — at least when they were working together on the court. In fact, during the 2000 championship series, Shaq referred to Kobe as “The Big Little Brother” when Kobe led the team to a win after Shaq had fouled out.

But when the Lakers were losing, the animosity between the two superstars mushroomed. They lost trust in each other, and before long, the whole team was infected with suspicion. Without trust, the team was unable to work together and win another championship. In the public eye, the team imploded; demands for trades led to Shaq leaving the team, along with the Lakers’ all-star coach, Phil Jackson.

Another NBA notable, Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier, described it well when he said, “A locker room is always a few wins away from being a good locker room, a few losses away from being a good locker room. All the bad things, the warts, are much more apparent in a losing streak or a bad streak and the flaws are not as apparent when you’re winning a few games. We’ve had some tough losses. We want to look at the warts.”

Breakdowns in performance can lead to diminished collaboration inside business organizations, too. We have found that setbacks in the work can have a profoundly negative impact on inner work life — the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that occur during the work day. Perceptions are especially relevant here, since they include how people judge their work, their colleagues, and the organization. Especially in close collaborative situations, setbacks can lead workers to see their colleagues as incompetent or untrustworthy. When this happens, they will become less supportive of those colleagues, less openly communicative, and less likely to coordinate smoothly; collaboration will begin to break down.

So, not only is collaboration critical to high performance, but maintaining high performance can be important to keeping collaboration going. Previously, we have talked about the importance of small wins — modest but meaningful successes along the pathway to achieving a major goal — in maintaining high performance and subjective well-being. They can also help workers maintain effective collaboration. When organizations support and celebrate small wins, employees feel like winners; the mistrust and conflict that can accompany losing will be avoided. Without those interpersonal problems, it will be much easier to achieve consistent and effective collaboration.

In your own work, have you experienced better collaboration when your team has been on a winning streak?

Teresa Amabile is Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She researches what makes people creative, productive, happy, and motivated at work. Steven Kramer is a psychologist and independent researcher. They are the authors of the article “The Power of Small Wins” (Harvard Business Review, May 2011) and the forthcoming book The Progress Principle.

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