Want to strengthen your team? Encounter some adversity!

I have the opportunity to talk about teams.  I work with clients who get work done in teams and I teach students at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University where we do a group project each semester that requires team cooperation.  Teams have some key components that they need in order to be successful and I’ll share those today.  One that I don’t typically mention is adversity, but we will talk about the value of adversity in either forming or dismantling a team.  Today’s example will be more about how adversity has forced one team to excel.

Jon Katzenbach and Smith wrote a wonderful book in 1993 called The Wisdom of Teams.  People who know me would think I get a royalty every time I mention this book because I refer to it so often.  The definition of an effective team from this tome is one I really like and I’ll share it with you now:

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

Katzenbach & Smith-“The Wisdom of Teams”

Let’s break this down a little and then talk about Team Adversity.

  • Small number is typically 7-11 in size.  This fits quite well with Team Adversity.  Team A, for short, is a basketball team playing in the SEC.  They ended last year with a stellar team and then lost three key players before the fall semester began in 2013.
  • Complementary skills works well with basketball.  Some shoot well, others rebound and others play good defense.  Some perform a combination of all three.
  • Common purpose is easy.  Team A exists to win games and play well.
  • Performance goals relates to that common purpose.  Not only do they exist to win, but they also exist to improve and help one another
  • Mutual accountability is harder to measure because most of the accountability for Team A resides with the coaching staff.  Still, Team A has two stellar seniors who really set the tone for this group.

Now that we understand the methods to describe any team, let’s look at how adversity has allowed Team A to really form and perform in a much better manner that anticipated.  We already mentioned that Team A lost three key players in the off season.  Early in the season this team lost another key player to an injury.  Shortly after that a second key contributor was removed from the team for a variety of issues that we will not discuss here.  Team A went from 12 stellar members to 7 in a matter of about 6 months, with the final two blows occurring during the season.  While I use the number 7, that only relates to the number of players who are on scholarship for Team A.  They now have 3 other key contributors, two who walked on the team and one who gave up his regular role as a team manager to suit up with the team.

If you follow basketball, especially in the SEC, you will know I am talking about the Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball Team.  This team has gelled and is performing at a high level in the face of strong adversity.


Just like in the workplace, the amount of work has not gone down for this team, but the number of players available to do the work has decreased.  As a result, all of the team members have raised their level of performance in order to help the team meet their goals.  In addition, some of the team members have adjusted their roles in order to meet the needs of the team.

Adversity can be a strong bonding agent for any team.  For Vanderbilt men’s basketball it has been a galvanizing agent.  For many other teams it can be the final straw that causes the team to fail miserably.

We will talk more about adversity and teams in my next post.

My hat is off to this team, one that has raised their game, no pun intended, in the face of great adversity.