I was indoctrinated from the start that culture is crucial. My high school and college programs both had great coaches who stressed the importance of culture. As a result, both programs had well-defined, strong cultures of hard work and selflessness.
But is culture as important as coaches say it is? In the spirit of questioning assumptions, let’s take a look.
A quick google search confirmed that virtually everyone holds the same belief as me. I had to go to the 3rd page on google (gasp!) before I could find a single sports-related article talking about how culture was overrated. And the article I found was about how a bad culture-fit was a poor excuse for trading a player.
So, since nobody has even acknowledged the possibility that culture is overrated, I’ll give it a go. Is it possible that culture doesn’t matter? That it’s just a buzzword for coaches and general managers?
The Case Against Culture
The main argument against culture is probably as follows; when it comes down to it, the game is about about talent, not culture. If you have better parts, you’re going to make a better product. The quality of your players has a much bigger impact on winning than culture. It doesn’t matter what cheesy team slogans you have or what convoluted acronyms describe your philosophy.
Because of the true simplicity of the game, coaches and organizations don’t have as much influence on team success as they imagine. To hide from this feeling of insignificance which directly threatens their ego, coaches tout the extreme importance of culture.
It’s also much more interesting for outside observers to postulate about a team’s culture rather than to accept the fact that the team with better players will most likely win. As a result, media narratives abound sharing the story of underdogs with great team chemistry and culture who defeat the Goliath's. In this way, the myth of the importance of culture spreads.
I don’t believe this is true, but it’s an interesting exercise in opening ones mind to opposing points of view. I think culture plays an even greater role than people realize because of this talent driven argument. In fact, I believe culture is more than just a way to get players to play hard. It creates better players.
The Case For Culture
My theory is this: Culture is environment, environments shape people, people shape people.
let’s break down my argument step by step:
Step 1: Culture is environment. A team that has a successful culture has created an environment that is conducive to peak performance. The culture of a team is just another word for the setting within which the team operates.
Step 2: Environments shape people. Whether we know it or not, the environment we live in has a massive impact on our behavior. I can’t understate the power of this relationship. There is a stunning amount of research showing that we are enormously influenced by our environment. Here are a few interesting results from psychology.
- Students who were subliminally exposed to the words “gray,” “frail,” and “retire” walked significantly slower out of a room than when they entered it.
- People who read a character description while holding a warm coffee in their hands were more likely to describe the person as “warm and friendly” than the person holding iced coffee.
- Seeing money on a screensaver causes people to be more independent, work longer on a task, be more selfish (pick up less pencils when a neighbor drops them), and prefer to be alone.
These effects are startling. It almost makes us feel like we aren’t in control of our own actions. And these are just tiny changes that significantly impact our behavior. That’s why culture is so powerful. Everything we see, hear, touch, and feel has a profound impact on what we do.
Returning to basketball, ff we are in an environment that causes us to work hard and concentrate, players will get more shots up before and after practice. They’ll be more focused during practice and will learn skills more quickly. And players will do these things without even realizing that they're doing them. Environments shape people.
Step 3: People shape people. This link is more obvious. Humans are social creatures. From our caveman days, how you related to the other members of the tribe had a huge impact on whether you survived and reproduced. Thus, evolution would tell us that people who were sensitive to others around us would pass on that gene.
Note: if you want more proof check out Philip Zimbardo's stanford prison experiment, Stanley Milligram’s obedience experiment, the robbers cave experiment, conformity studies, the concept of social proof, groupthink, bystander apathy etc.
When it comes to basketball, the same social rules apply. Teammates who are energetic make us feel more energetic. Teammates who talk about others behind our back make us wary of making a mistake and afraid of being mocked. Coaches who only criticize suck the enjoyment out of practice. Most players don’t work as hard when it’s not fun. Coaches who stop drills to lecture in monotone for minutes at a time make players zone out and lose concentration. People shape people.
What’s noteworthy is that both steps 2 and 3 happen largely unconsciously. We feel that we’re in complete control of our own actions, when in reality, our environment and the people around us have a huge influence on us. That’s why, in my opinion, culture is so powerful. The culture we see is really just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the effects of a positive or negative team culture happen below the surface of our awareness.
My Conclusion: Culture is King
My argument against culture was based on the proposition that culture is overrated and talent is more important in determining who wins. But I would argue (against myself apparently) that this statement actually boosts the argument that culture is crucial. In my opinion, culture helps develop that ever important talent and thus, plays an even more important role than many people realize.
Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L. Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology. 1996 Aug;71(2):230-44.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.