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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