Can successful businesses learn from team dynamics in sport?

Does money explain success?

Money talks in the world of sport. It buys the best players, the best management and the best facilities – the best of everything necessary to ensure success.

The world’s top revenue-generating teams are certainly a glittering array of household names, including illustrious brands across major sports such as Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. According to Forbes, between them, the top 10 are worth just shy of $6.8 billion.

Yet, in the past year, the sporting world has demonstrated several times that money doesn’t always equal achievement – Chelsea FC won the English Premiership; Monaco won the Ligue 1 in France, and Chicago Cubs won the World Series in baseball.

None of these clubs, of course, are poor, but they all outperformed teams with greater financial resources – teams which on paper were stronger. How did they do it?

Chelsea Football Club: 2016-2017 Premiership title

The focus of this piece is Chelsea’s victory. Despite presenting a very similar line-up of players to the one that got them to 10th place a year ago, they topped the league and almost doubled their points from last year (93 versus 47).

The difference was smart management and an understanding of how group dynamics and processes can transform performance – factors that are as applicable to business as they are to sport.

Group roles, clarity and acceptance

Clear group roles are key: everyone knows what to expect from medical staff, managers, defenders and strikers, for example, and all organisations should aim for a similar level of clarity. In addition to role clarity, successful teams also exhibit acceptance: the responsibility of those who assign tasks to ensure that individuals accept the expectations associated with their roles. Should one of these conditions be absent, teams risk both individual and team underperformance.

The triumphant Chelsea team offers examples of both role clarity and acceptance: Victor Moses, a career striker, was required to play this year as a wing-back, while Cesc Fabregas had to give up his status as a first team player and get used to coming off the bench part way through each match. Both made a success of their new roles, suggesting that the manager, Antonio Conte, ensured that both understood and accepted the expectations placed on them.

Productive group norms

Group norms are behaviours, beliefs or performance standards that can be either formally or informally developed by a group. Examples might be modes of address, communication channels (email versus face to face, for example), punctuality or dress codes. Positive norms represent one of the structural characteristics that make a group of individuals become a functional team, with those norms enforced naturally by the power of social pressure.

Some teams adopt higher standards than others of course, and the winning Chelsea team were held to high standards by two of its leaders: Conte, who used the word “work” or a derivative 32 times in under an hour in an interview with the Guardian, and Eden Hazard, one of Chelsea’s and the world’s most talented players, who said “very hard” training was key to the team’s success. For Hazard, the key factor was not the performance of opponents or Chelsea’s superior match performance, but a behavioural standard entirely under the team’s control: their hard work on the training pitch.


Cohesion has been defined as “a dynamic process that is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in pursuit of instrumental objectives and/or for the satisfaction of member effective need”. This definition implies that individuals work and remain united for two main reasons: task cohesion (to achieve common goals); and social cohesion (satisfying a need for affiliation).

Some researchers have concluded that the relation between cohesion and performance is circular – that the more a team is cohesive the more likely it is to achieve success and that the more successful the team, the more likely it is to be cohesive.

In an Evening Standard interview, defender César Azpilicueta talked about Conte’s insistence on the team “being united on the pitch”, building “the identity he wanted” and his defence colleagues’ “different qualities that complement each other”. Clearly, Conte built a strong and cohesive team, united in the pursuit of two instrumental objectives: being tactically perfect and winning the championship.

Changing perspective

The lessons for teams in a non-sporting context are – I hope – clear, but this piece does not intend to explain all of the factors that contribute to team or organisational success. It was written to inspire and encourage group leaders, managers, employers and employees to think from a different perspective.

Focusing on strategies to improve understanding and acceptance of roles, to set and maintain positive company norms and encourage group cohesion could give your organisation the edge to outperform bigger or stronger competitors.

In my own organisation, we see the reality of these observations daily. Coremetrix helps lenders and insurers find new customers through the use of psychometric data, making up for deficiencies in their credit history. This offering means that we have a very desperate team, composed of academic psychologists, experienced risk management professionals and software specialists.

The people in this diverse group all have very well defined roles but acceptance is key – especially when people with different specialisms are working together on a project. We are also all united by a common vision, which is to help our clients broaden their customer base safely and work towards a world where everyone – regardless of age, location, gender or credit history – has affordable access to the financial services they need. Team psychology certainly works for us, and I’m sure it would work for you too.

Author: David Kaufer, Senior Research Psychologist

Three reasons to trust psychometrics


Most of us have taken personality tests for a job application. However, few people realise that psychometrics, the science behind them, is a robust academic discipline with a heritage going back to one of the finest scientific minds of the 19th Century.

Psychometrics is much more than a recruitment tool. It is the measurement and quantification of psychological processes, from personality factors and cognitive abilities to cultural values etc. It is premised on the understanding that human behaviour is measurable and predictable.

Researchers have laboured for many decades to create a reliable means of measuring psychological patterns. Psychometrics has evolved as an empirical, data-driven science able to model human behaviour.


Reason 1: Established Science

This is not a new area of study. The Psychometric Society, which advances quantitative methods in behavioural science, was founded in 1935. The origins of the science can be traced back much further, to the 1860s and the work of Sir Francis Galton, half-cousin and friend to Charles Darwin.

Today, a large research community is engaged in the discipline, producing a growing body of highly credible scientific evidence to support the use of psychometrics across various sectors. Universities have entire research labs dedicated to psychometrics and quantitative psychology. Such institutions include The Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge, which researches the measurement of human behaviour using pioneering techniques and diverse sources of data. Psychometricians research the development of classical paper-pencil questionnaires and computer adaptive tests. More recent research has focused on the use of digital footprints to predict psychological traits.


Reason 2: Rigorous Testing and Development

Psychometricians follow a rigorous scientific process, undertaking detailed statistical analysis and meeting numerous stringent evidential criteria to prove that tests are both valid and reliable.

Some tests, like the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP) scales which measure respondents against the Big Five personality scale (also known as OCEAN, for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism), have evolved through constant testing over decades. For example, the IPIP Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness Personality Inventory (NEO-PI) assessment has been revised for well over 30 years across various populations and in many language versions.

Psychometric test construction includes:

  • Item development procedures are designed to confirm the relevance of each question in a test and eliminate bias. They follow an iterative process and can sometimes take years.
  • Validity assessments assess the effectiveness of the test in measuring what it was designed to measure (or not). E.g. Concurrent validity examines the accuracy of the test in predicting related future outcomes, such as the accuracy of a cognitive ability test in predicting academic outcomes.
  • Reliability analyses assess the stability of the test through retesting procedures.
  • Standardisation and norms allow test results to be comparable across different populations, where necessary and possible. Usually published tests are revised when new data becomes available.

A further challenge is ensuring that psychometric assessments safeguard against inauthentic results, whether attempts to game the system or provide answers preferred by the assessor. Attention checks can help by looking for patterned responding or measuring response times for different questions. Inconsistency in test responses is generally an indicator that the test responses are not an accurate representation of the individual, whether due to subconscious biases or fraud, at a more conscious level.


Reason 3: It Works

Well-established research confirms that these tests can be applied across many fields. In education, for example, measuring aptitude has proven to help students reach their full potential. In recruitment, the all-round objective view of a candidate’s suitability allows employers to relate applicants’ cognitive ability score to their work performance, or their integrity score and likely absenteeism as an employee.

 More recently, digital footprints have been used to accurately predict a range of insightful attributes. Researchers used Facebook ‘Likes’ to predict the extent to which a person is naturally organised, reliable, and consistent; or one’s predisposition for depression; amongst a range of other features.

If as many say, the modern age is the information age, then expect to see a lot more psychometrics in the future. While most data sources tangentially capture an aspect of human behaviour, modern psychometrics provides the whole picture.


Practical Usage

Advancement in this field has not been achieved solely within academia. Commercial entities are driving the use of psychometrics in the pursuit of profit in ways that go beyond the recruitment of staff.

Investment firms are using these tests to establish the risk a customer is willing to take to make better investment selections. While in credit risk, lenders are turning to psychometrics to help them augment traditional credit scoring methods as they find that integrity and conscientiousness (for example) are closely linked to a person’s willingness to prioritise debt and thus avoid financial difficulty.

In a world in which communication is increasingly targeted to precise demographics, some commercial adopters use psychometrics to ensure a close personality fit between their customers and their products.

It is an exciting time in the field of psychometrics. The science is evolving fast, new data sources are opening up and the practitioners themselves are constantly refining their instruments. Some people are quick to dismiss psychometrics but it is a real science broadening our understanding of people and their behaviours.