U.S. Women’s Olympic Soccer Teaches Law Firms About Teamwork & Accountability

During the Olympic Games, teams and teamwork are subject to public limelight.

In gymnastics, the sport has recently cut down the maximum number of participants from seven to five. Nevertheless, this didn’t deter the U.S. women’s team of all-star gymnasts.

In 1996 it was the Magnificent Seven, and in 2012, it’s the Fabulous Five.

The New York Times agrees, “Typically, fans in the United States fall in love with the fresh, new face—think of the gymnast Gabby Douglas and the swimmer Missy Franklin—or become obsessed with a team based on dominance and power and might.”

“The Olympic men’s basketball teams are made up of N.B.A. mercenaries, yes, but they are almost always effective mercenaries. They throttle. They pummel. They thump.”

Not to mention the U.S. women’s soccer team and their surprising victory over Canada. Although all but one of the women have been playing together for years in World Cup competition, they were hardly considered a Dream Team.

Now, they’re playing for a gold medal.

“The last 12 hours have been a lot of storytelling about the game with my teammates, a lot of recovery, a lot of talking to family and friends back home who watched the match,” Alex Morgan, the striker who scored the winning goal with 30 seconds left in overtime, said Tuesday (via NYT).

In the story of women’s soccer, the resilience centers on determination, scrappy offense, and individual intensity—as opposed to pure teamwork and talent.

“With this team, it isn’t always pretty, but that’s the thing: they don’t care. They don’t want to choose doing it the right way over winning,” said former United States defender Brandi Chastain to the NYT, who won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals.

And, although Americans will certainly tune in to watch the women’s title-holding redemption on Thursday, coaches will likely worry whether or not this team has it in them to handle a rematch against Japan with so much at stake. After all, nobody has been so harsh on the U.S. team’s lackluster performance as the players themselves.

For scientists, criticism of the U.S. women’s soccer team appears merited. But, only because for centuries, researchers have tracked trends in productivity and team size. In sports, as in business, one person cannot achieve (efficiently) the same workload that, say, a team of eleven might.

Can Team USA really keep it together?

One of the earliest known experiments about teamwork dates back to France a hundred years ago. A set of simple rope pulling experiments demonstrated that people’s efforts quickly diminish as team size increases. They call it the Ringelmann Effect.

Eight individuals, it turns out, do not pull as hard as four. Ringlemann rationalized the deterioration of effort by suggesting it was difficult for multiple group members to coordinate effort; thus, the importance of communication among teams.

So, wait a minute, does that mean the Olympic committee should decrease soccer teams to eight players, or increase women’s gymnastics teams by three?

Hardly. Because the experiment didn’t stop there.

In the 1970s, Alan Ingham and three colleagues decided to recreate the Ringlemann experiment in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Amherst… with a few twists. Ingham and his colleagues’ successfully replicated the same results of Ringelmann’s experiment, but produced a secondary observation.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether people are part of a larger team or simply thought they were part of a larger team—in both instances, members worked less hard.

“Thus in a team of six (where three had been asked to pull as hard as they could and three others instructed to pretend), those actually pulling the rope put in only as much effort as they had previously done in teams of six,” explains Mark de Rond for The Harvard Business Review Blog.

“Ingham and his colleagues had demonstrated that loss of effort could not be explained by lack of coordination, as Ringelmann originally thought. Their experiments instead illustrated the problem of social loafing—when team members reduce their effort because they feel less responsible for the output.”

In your office, does this phenomenon sound familiar?

The truth is, law and other professional environments witness social loafing—or, at least, variations on it—everyday.

Bosses worry less about repercussions as long as lower-level colleagues can be blamed; likewise, associates are quick to rationalize any mistake as the fault of senior management or those with a supervisory role.

The greatest asset of teams is the ability to combine the work effort and talent of multiple experts. The greatest weakness of teams is the lack of personal responsibility—or, rather, generalized blame—during times of failure. A person doesn’t try as hard when the winnings are shared and the blame diffused.

For law firm professionals, how do you then ensure 100 percent effort by all team members?

In the Olympics, this is ensured through televised games. Transparency is often the key to productivity and profit.

In the same way, law firm managers should work toward creating more transparent work product. This means, a tick list of individual successes and failures, project progress, and accountability. It also means objective performance reviews on a regular basis.

Incentivizing individual effort made within team projects will also help improve the efficiency of your casework. Making sure associates are rewarded for the how hard they pull the rope (and penalized when they don’t) will improve firm productivity.

“Sports have the edge here in that, particularly in elite environments, systems are designed to measure performance on an ongoing basis, aided by increasingly sophisticated technologies, writes de Rond for the HBR.

“For example, in early 2007 the Cambridge University Boat Club embarked on a controversial experiment. Each week they would post not only objective performance results on the inside door of their ground floor gym but, right next to it, a sheet with five columns to cover subjective assessments by the coaching team. With your name in the first column, the coaches told you what you did well in the second column, and what you didn’t do so well in the third column. The fourth and fifth columns were reserved for what you should stop doing, or start doing, immediately. Though somewhat uncomfortable, this left few places to hide.”

The long hours, physical toil, and mental toll of working hard-—whether in professional sports or professional environments—is, by nature, uncomfortable. But, as any Olympian or award-winning lawyer would tell you, the gain in the end is always worth expending the effort.

-WB

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