Is ‘Team Chemistry’ Real?

03 Aug, 2020


Is ‘Team Chemistry’ Real?

July/August 2020

In Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry, Joan Ryan, a journalist and senior media adviser to the San Francisco Giants, explores a little-understood — maybe even mythical — attribute of winning teams, in sports or the everyday world of work.

Great coaches swear by this difficult-to-define quality, and in this book, Ryan explains how you, too, can apply what they know to your own workplace. She is also the author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, which Sports Illustrated named one of the Top Sports Books of All Time.

The 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals seem to epitomize the fun-loving underdog team that somehow manages to knock off rivals that look better “on paper” and actually have won more regular-season games. This is what happens, you write, when there’s strong “team chemistry,” right?

That’s exactly right. You see these teams that always seem to be overachieving. They’re eager to get to the ballpark just to be together. They’re having a blast, and they win. And that’s what it is like in the world the rest of us know from our own work. It’s a great feeling to be part of a team where the members are 100% committed to each other and to the common purpose. 

And it is sort of like romantic love?

It is like that. It’s that feeling you have when you want to be with that person because of how you feel about yourself when you’re with them. They bring out something in yourself that you can’t bring out willingly on your own. And that’s the way it is with those teams. There’s a lighthearted quality to it and a sense of fun. When you see a player in a baseball dugout with their arm slung over another player, or laughing and carrying on, they’re not trying to build team chemistry, though that kind of interaction has that effect. That’s just evidence of good team chemistry that already exists.

It is also evidence of trust, isn’t it?

It is evidence of 100% trust, on the field and off. But it’s important to remember that this kind of trust can exist in different forms. I write about Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent of the San Francisco Giants back in 2001-02 or thereabouts. Those two guys couldn’t stand each other. They didn’t speak. They’d sit at opposite ends of the dugout. They got into fistfights. But on the field, there was total commitment to winning and to each other. I interviewed both of them at length, and privately they each said pretty much the same thing about the other: “There’s no one I want in left field more than Barry Bonds.” “There’s no one I want playing second base more than Jeff Kent.” Then there was the New York Yankees back when Billy Martin was the manager and Reggie Jackson played right field. They’d get in fights, too, but they won. There’s personal chemistry, and there’s what I call “task chemistry.” Those teams — the Giants and the Yankees — had task chemistry. But that’s unusual. We need that social and emotional connection to perform at our best, so that off-the-field chemistry is more important in the long run, I think.

Your book seems to push back against the domination of analytics in sports — the Moneyball approach. Is that true?

In a sense, I guess it is. The importance of team chemistry has been downplayed in recent years, and I wanted to answer three questions when I started my reporting. Is team chemistry real? If so, what is it, and how does it affect performance — not just in sports but in other aspects of life?

And you found that it’s real?

Yes, but it is complicated, and it is important for managers in any organization to understand how complicated it is and the different forms it can take. Great leaders understand it, whether they can explain what they do or not. Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan era, understood it. Jackson won with teams that were made up of incredibly diverse personalities — guys like Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Jackson had the wisdom to accept the guys on that team for what they were. There was that episode in the middle of the 1997 NBA Finals where Rodman went off to Las Vegas, and everyone was saying that this proves he has no commitment to the team. But Jackson knew that was just what Rodman needed, so they were OK with it. On the court, Rodman gave 100%. Great leaders know that different people have different needs.

Your book is mainly about baseball, though, which you say is the one team sport that is most like the work lives that most of us experience. How is that?

In basketball or football, for example, there is constant give-and-take, but the roles in baseball are more delineated. You can’t go from offense to defense and back to offense in a matter of seconds the way you can, for example, in basketball. Baseball is more like the work most people do in their cubicles, with precise roles.

You say all this is deeply engrained in us as humans.

It’s human nature. We’re tribal people, and we are constantly interacting with and influencing one another. And that’s why team chemistry is so important. Analytics can explain only so much, and the “intangibles” can’t be quantified. If you’re in sales, the metrics might be your sales numbers, but those in themselves won’t necessarily measure the value you bring, or don’t bring, to the team. You also want to consider how a person might contribute to your productivity by lifting the performance of others. Great leaders try to understand how each individual on the team contributes to its overall performance. Great leaders also recognize who the leaders on the floor are. They recognize, the way Phil Jackson did, that you need to seek out different personalities and different points of view, even if it makes you uncomfortable. You need diversity if you want a dynamic workplace.

How is team chemistry affected when — as now — so many of us work from home? Is it even possible to build good team chemistry at a time like this?

To some extent, yes, I think it is possible to build team chemistry, if leaders approach it the right way. As everybody knows, times of hardship bring people together. In a crisis, we tend to be at our best. We share the experience of going through a hardship. I think productivity will fall off if what Mark Zuckerberg said is true about how in time 50% of his employees will work remotely. I don’t think that is good for people. But for now, I think leaders can reach out to their people and let them know, individually, how important they are — check in on them just to ask how they’re doing. In that way, you will have gotten to know one another better than you had before. It might seem strange, but there are ways in which Zoom meetings help you know your colleagues better than they might ever have known each other before. You get a glimpse into each other’s lives. You go into their homes. “Oh, there’s your cat!” — little things like that. Assuming this pandemic doesn’t go on indefinitely, I think that if you handle this work-from-home situation in the right way, your team can come back stronger than it ever would have been before.

Reach Ryan at

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