What does a high-performance environment look like? Depending on where you go to answer this question, you might be met with descriptions such as obsessive and relentless work ethic, high expectations and standards, excellence, optimizing everything, and accountability. The picture that often comes to mind is a place that demands perfection, or at least as close to it as you can get. Some of that may be true, but perhaps we’re missing the most important ingredient: we see the hard work and desire to get better, but miss the underlying foundation supporting it.
The Texas Rangers recently won the World Series. They completed a turnaround that took them from ranking 29th, 28th, and 23rd out of 30 teams over the previous three seasons to winning a championship. Yes, they went out and got better players, but anyone who has led at any level will tell you that buying talent doesn’t guarantee a turnaround. So what else changed?
“Happy players. I’m telling you, man. When you get players happy together, I think you are going to find the best performance,” said Ranger’s first baseman Nathaniel Lowe.
Happiness doesn’t create the dramatic impact of a coaching giving a roaring half-time speech that we see in movies. It doesn’t have the gloss of an environment where players look and are treated like robots, performing highly coordinated drills to perfection. It doesn’t capture as much attention as the social media clip of someone screaming in the weight room or telling athletes they are going to war. We tell ourselves that happiness is something to strive for in our relationships or hobbies, but not in our work. This is a wrong view.
Here is Rangers’ manager, Bruce Bochy: “You want to create an environment that is going to bring out the best in the players. Have them comfortable. Have them play with freedom, freedom that you need to play with to be the best that you can be. Not feeling pressure or anything. It’s a culture you want to have.”
Comfortable? Not feeling pressure? Freedom? Come on now, this is elite sport. We’re supposed to embrace the pain, to demand the best, to yell at people if they don’t touch the line when doing drills. Maybe Bruce Bochy and the Rangers just got a bit lucky?
Let’s turn to a ‘tougher’ sport. The Miami Dolphins are currently first in their division, with the number one offense in football. When their 2nd year head coach Mike McDaniel was asked what word or words describe his team right now, he said “joyfully deliberate.” He then proceeded to explain, “We are playing a game. It is our job and it’s a high-stakes job, but it’s still playing. They’re able to find that happy balance of enjoying what they’re doing but taking it very serious at the same time.”
I think McDaniel and Bochy are capturing the same idea. We often see characteristics like accountability, seriousness, and work on the opposite end of a spectrum from characteristics like joy and happiness. And that’s just not the case. You can be serious and happy. You can care deeply, be determined, and joke around and have fun.
A few years ago, a clip of a college football coach screaming at players on a bus for laughing and joking around after a tough loss went viral. How dare someone talk to their teammates after a loss; that must show they don’t care. They should be miserable! This sentiment is common. It comes from the same place of not understanding that you can care deeply, and, at the same time, not let a loss define you. (According to research, it actually backfires when athletes let being miserable linger, setting them up for a greater chance of failure in their next outing.)
We can work extremely hard and enjoy it at the same time—this is the way. Doing so requires cultivating the right environment. Do you create a space in which people can thrive? Or is it one where they are just trying to survive?
A thriving environment supports people’s basic psychological needs. People want to see that they can make progress in something they care about, they want to have a sense of autonomy, and they want to belong and matter. In a recent review of teams participating in eSports, researchers found that when an organization created an environment that led to greater needs satisfaction, intrinsic motivation grew. A disempowering culture had the opposite effect, thwarting basic needs and subsequent motivation. Overall, shifts in motivation”explained 56% of the variance in well-being and the intention to keep playing eSports.”
It’s not just video games where this shows up. As I outlined in my recent work, a slew of research—ranging from more traditional workplaces to sports as varied as cross-country, swimming, and basketball—shows that when we create an environment that supports people and allows them to have fun they tend to perform better.
Why, then, do we keep falling for the drill sergeant, all work no play model? Another recent study sheds some light.
First, an explanation of obsessive passion, which occurs when a single pursuit or activity overshadows everything else. Obsessive passion is all consuming. It’s win at all costs: you don’t just want to win, you have to. We often valorize such passion. But it tends to backfire. Obsessive passion leads to cheating, burnout, and ultimately poor performance over the long haul.
Recent research explains why we keep falling for the trap, and even allure, of obsessive passion. In short, it is a compensatory response to unsatisfied needs. When we don’t promote autonomy, mastery, and belonging in a healthy and productive way, we go on a frantic mission to fill that void. We reach for the artificial candy version, what feels fulfilling in the moment but leaves us wanting, craving, and miserable over the long haul. We get trapped in a kind of doubling down. If you just work harder, obsess more, and get more serious, then you’ll fill that void. Only you won’t. It amounts to striving out of desperation, and that sort of striving causes more pressure, makes you tense up, and leads to under performance.
What the Rangers and Dolphins are getting at is the antidote: create an environment that of course works hard, that wants to improve, that is open to coaching and critique, but one that also has fun. Bring back joy, support basic needs, and stoke the flame of intrinsic motivation.
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