Engage Hearts, Create Unity to Forge Winning Teams

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 19, 2017

​When the International Olympic Committee instituted a rule change in 1989 to allow professional basketball players to compete in the Olympic Games, the U.S. Olympic Team thought it had been handed a gold medal in perpetuity.

"The gold is ours," was the thinking, said Iris Firstenberg, Ph.D., who specializes in strategies for creative problem solving and innovative thinking. In 1992, the first Olympics where NBA players participated, the "Dream Team" included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

"They plowed through the competition, winning every game by more than 40 points," she said.

The 1996 and 2000 Olympics were the same, with the U.S. winning handily but by ever-shrinking margins. In 2004 the U.S. barely managed to win the bronze medal despite having team members such as Dwayne Wade, who was at the peak of his career.

Stunned and baffled, the U.S. Olympic Team turned to Mike "Coach K" Krzyzewski, head men's basketball coach at Duke University and the winningest coach in the history of Division I men's basketball, for his insight.

The coach identified two problems:

  • Team members' hearts were in the wrong place; they were playing for themselves and not as representatives of the United States. 
  • Each player, while incredible, played their own game on the court. There was no unified approach to winning.

One attendee was listening closely to Firstenberg's Masters Series presentation, "Forging the Extraordinary Team: From Many to One," at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition. 

"I see our team falling apart where I work, [and] I think it's because the top management has very big egos," she said. One of the things underscored for her was the notion that everyone participates in building a team, "from the custodian" up.

How do you start to build a team? You start, according to Firstenberg, by engaging the hearts of the team members.

Engaging Hearts

Krzyzewski, as coach of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, took team members on a ferry ride to Ellis Island. As they gazed at the Statue of Liberty, he asked them to think of their ancestors—some of whom had been slaves—when they were on the court and to play for them.

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And he brought in wounded veterans to speak about how they were so proud to fight for their country that they asked their military commanders to be sent back into battle.
Krzyzewski helped to instill a feeling of purpose into his team, Firstenberg said. Organizations can do this by asking their team members why what they do matters. Capture the emotional component of the meaning of their work.

She pointed to the American Cancer Society, which raises money for cancer research, as an example. Asked the purpose of their work, team members responded "to cure cancer." Why was that important, they were asked. "To save lives," they answered.
But why was that important, they were asked again. So the father of the bride is alive to walk his daughter down the aisle, incredulous team members replied, and so loved ones are around to celebrate a birthday.

By drilling down, the American Cancer Society captured the emotional, tangible component to the meaning of the work their members performed.

A Coordinated Effort

Krzyzewski wanted to ensure every player on the team was playing as a team. He started by asking them to create the USA Gold Standards, a 10-point aspirational list, that included "we win together, we lose together," "we give aid to a teammate" and "no excuses."

The values of a business team might, Firstenberg said, include "we question assumptions," "we are not afraid to try new things," "we deliver on our commitments" and "we listen to our stakeholders."

"Bring life to your standards and make them a part of your team DNA," Firstenberg said. Celebrate them to reinforce them. She pointed to Ritz-Carlton as an example. Every one of the hotel chain's teams around the world begins the day with a 10-minute huddle. They celebrate one of the organization's 10 standards by sharing examples of how team members lived up to that standard.
Team members start looking for good examples and start being good examples, Firstenberg noted.
"It's a way of turning a standard into real behaviors," she said.
It's important, too, for team members to have a sense of "psychological safety." In the workplace, it's feeling safe to speak up or take a risk without fear of consequences to the team member's job or reputation. Employees feel respected and accepted.

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