For better team performance, focus on the relationships; for better individual performance, focus on the team.

SPORT IS always a good reference for team performance and for this subject there is no better example than the South African Super Rugby team, The Lions.

Despite a proud tradition, the Lions had been on a downhill trajectory for years. They had provided many of the players who won the 1995 Rugby World Cup for South Africa. They had won the first international Super 10 tournament (the precursor to Super Rugby). However, by 2012, they had been through a number of seasons barely winning a single game. If there had been a relegation zone, they’d have been the prime candidates. Nobody wanted to play for them, and so they ended up with a motley crew of players who had been rejected by other unions.

Relations between team members (the parts) oils the machine (system) in a way that enhances team performance.

Then a new coach – a former player, Johan Ackermann – took over and they stopped losing every game. Soon they started winning consistently once again. Season by season they won more and more games until in 2017 they topped the log and played in a home final, which they ultimately lost. What changed? Certainly not the player pool. They were the same players as before.

The debate about what they had done differently from all the other South African teams – who were also in a general stagnation, if not complete decline – often came up. Clearly Ackermann was a good tactician. Clearly they had a game plan and were executing it well. But all of this was par for the course for any professional rugby team in this tournament.

There was something else and nobody could quite put their finger on it.

Team performance impacts individual performance

One day, an article appeared by former Springbok captain and now commentator Bob Skinstad. He insisted that the major factor was the relationships that Ackermann had managed to develop between himself and the players, and between the players in the team. He pointed to various examples that he himself had witnessed.

So what does the Lions example tell us?

Firstly, as I’ve written before, when all else is equal, the less entropy in the system, the better the performance of the team and the individuals within the team. In practical terms, relations between team members (the parts) oils the machine (system) in a way that enhances team performance – and has a positive impact on actual results.

Team performance can have a reverse-engineered effect on individual performance.

Even more noteworthy was how many of those Lions players – the same ones who had been rejected before – went on to play for the national team, the Springboks. This indicates how team performance can have a reverse-engineered effect on individual performance.

This last point is critical. So often we try to work from the individual to the team. Yet this is an indication that it’s also possible to work on relationships within the team, and both team and individual performance will benefit as a side-effect.