Why team chemistry trumps talent

Team chemistry is a difficult but achievable puzzle. If you can get the pieces to fit together, there’s nothing your team can’t do.

We see it all the time: a group of friends facing off against stronger, faster, more experienced opponents…

A group of fighters overcoming insurmountable odds against bigger, stronger opponents. Everyone loves the classic underdog story.

However, people rarely expect these stories to happen in their own lives, probably because they seem too good to be true.

What if I told you that underdog stories have less to do with luck and more to do with team chemistry? In fact, team chemistry is often the reason why Davids defeat Goliaths. I learned this lesson firsthand.

When I was little, I played volleyball competitively. Every year, my club would hold regional tryouts to filter out the best from the rest. It was a ruthless system that ensured the team was always packed with talent. They were all at least 6’3” tall and were always the best players on their respective school teams.

So imagine our surprise looking at the podium at our first tournament.

The Bears were a rival team from a nearby city, smaller than us and less athletic. Their setter was no taller than 1.70m and they only had 3 players taller than 1.90m.

However, they always had a coordinated block. When someone on their team messed up, I never saw sighs of frustration or looks of annoyance (which I was used to), just a quick huddle and words of encouragement. I watched in amazement as they won all the local tournaments and medaled at the national championship every year.

Over time, I became friends with some of the Bears players and asked them what their secret sauce was. What they told me stuck with me.

Their recruiting style was different than most teams. They held tryouts every year, like other teams, but only replaced one or two players a year. Their core remained together from start to finish.

They spent more time together during pre-season than any other team I knew. The head coach organised many off-season meetings and competitions, which was almost unheard of at the time.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me was that none of the players on the bench wanted to leave for more playing time. They told me that even though their role was small, they felt the team needed them.

Just as team chemistry can help an individually mediocre team, like the Bears, perform better, a lack of it can hinder an individually exceptional team, like the Miami Heat of the Big Three era.

In 2010, the Miami Heat added reigning MVP LeBron James and four-time All-Star Chris Bosh to the 47-win team led by reigning All-Star Game MVP Dwayne Wade. Analysts and bettors predicted they would take the league by storm.

Seventeen games later, the Heat were 9-8, in 16th place. James and Wade were playing like selfish heroes, Bosh was invisible, and Coach Spoelstra was on the verge of being fired. Teammates barked at each other, and James ran into the coach hard on the way to the bench. No one knows if it was on purpose, but frustration was clearly mounting.

When the team seemed on the verge of imploding, a players’ meeting was called. The purpose: to vent frustrations and regroup. According to James, “everyone had a chance to let off steam.”

After the meeting, the Heat began to find their identity. James and Wade gave in to each other more and helped Bosh and the others get involved more. Unselfish plays led to easier baskets for the entire team.

Success came when everyone found a role in which they excelled: James and Wade as primary scorers and distributors, Bosh as a secondary scorer and Udonis Haslem as a tough rebounder.

Coach Spoelstra would pump up the team with a Shakespeare quote before every game. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he who sheds his blood with me today/Will be my brother.”

The Heat won 58 games again and finished third. They made it to the NBA Finals, but… they fell short in the end.

Progress is never linear.

The Heat maintained the same core over the next two seasons, adding only Shane Battier in 2011 and Ray Allen in 2012. Despite occasional injuries and slumps, the Heat maintained their upward trajectory, gradually improving their passing quality and defensive coordination.

They eventually reaped the fruits of their labor, winning the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals.

In the examples above, team chemistry is what ultimately helped each team achieve success, but what exactly is team chemistry?

Team chemistry can be divided into two parts: social chemistry and work chemistry.

According to Joan Ryan of Intangibles, social chemistry represents camaraderie and trust, and work chemistry represents a shared commitment to achieving a goal.

“There are no victories without (work) chemistry, but very few champions without social chemistry.”


You may achieve some small success with just work chemistry and no social chemistry, but a truly strong team needs both.

Social chemistry is the degree of sympathy, understanding and trust that exists between a group of people. It is evident in close-knit families and groups of friends, but it is also present in highly effective teams.

When team members communicate and collaborate, social chemistry grows and blossoms. This process takes a long time. No matter how likeable and personable each person is, they need to spend enough quality time with each other to create strong bonds. That’s why the Heat showed surprisingly poor teamwork early on: they spent just enough time creating strong bonds.

There are two traits that greatly accelerate social chemistry: social sensitivity and inclusivity.

Social sensitivity is the ability to sense the feelings of teammates. A group with this trait will enjoy a higher quality of communication. Socially sensitive people tend to be more empathetic, which creates a warmer and more productive work environment. The Bears’ excellent dynamic on the court is a good example of this.

When you hire new members for your team, you should test their social sensitivity by asking behavioral questions that probe how they interact with others. To foster social sensitivity within your team, you should design activities and events that inspire conversation and collaboration.

Inclusion is the willingness and desire for everyone to contribute. People who possess this trait will not try to dominate the team and do everything themselves. In conversations, they will take turns speaking and encourage quieter colleagues to speak.

Both the Bears and the Heat demonstrated the importance of this quality.

In the Bears’ case, it was evident in how role players did not want to leave the team because they felt needed.

For the Heat, it was the players’ meeting, which gave everyone on the team a voice, that turned their season around. And when James and Wade stopped trying to carry the team and started sharing the spotlight, the entire team improved.

Inclusivity is positively correlated with social sensitivity, so apply the same strategies for social sensitivity here. To further encourage inclusion, lead by example. Don’t talk too much, listen to your colleagues, and allow quiet ones to contribute. Make time for roundtables and team exorcisms that set the stage for everyone to participate.

Workplace chemistry is a shared commitment to a goal. Good workplace chemistry helps a team stay motivated and focused on getting things done. The two most important qualities of workplace chemistry are vision and tactical cohesion.

Vision encompasses the what and why of what you are trying to do. It is the North Star that motivates all team members.

For the Bears and the Heat, the vision was to win their respective championships. For businesses and organizations, it’s often about solving a problem or actualizing a reality that doesn’t yet exist. To set a powerful vision, you need to be crystal clear about what you’re trying to do and why. Write it down, simplify it, review it, refine it, and repeat it—the vision will evolve over time, and that’s okay. Instill it in the minds of your leaders and have them continually communicate it to everyone else.

If vision is chemistry at 10,000 meters, then…Tactical cohesion is chemistry at ground zero. Team members must clearly understand their role on the team, the roles of their teammates, and the road map to achieving the team’s goals. The Bears, from the starters to the end of the bench, understood the roles they needed to play in order to help their team succeed. Having this clarity is very energizing and is a big reason why the bench players didn’t want to leave.

Early on, the Heat relied on James and Wade to carry the bulk of the offensive load. As they better understood how they and their teammates fit into the game plan, the Heat’s offense became much more sophisticated and difficult to defend. Continuous lines of communication are critical to building tactical cohesion. Use weekly syncs and recurring 1:1 meetings to share organizational and roadmap changes with your team. Keep organizational charts and performance review documents up to date. And finally, being transparent and open to feedback will go a long way.

Building team chemistry isn’t easy. A dinner or team meeting every now and then isn’t enough. The good news is that team chemistry isn’t some mysterious holy grail, but rather a difficult but achievable puzzle. If you get the pieces to fit together, there’s nothing your team can’t do.