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In-house Access Insight & Commentary for In-House Counsel Worldwide

Teams, Superchickens & Saturday Night Live: Part 2

Posted in The Next Level: QuickTakes on LDM

Guest blogger: Stephen Roth is vice president & general counsel of Jewelry Television, a national jewelry retailer. The views in this post are his and do not reflect the views of the ACC or Jewelry Television. He is also vice-chair of the ACC Law Department Management Committee.

In my last post, we began considering the art of building teams (both inside and outside of our legal departments) and creating the environment where they will outperform. We started a road trip that began in the lab of biologist William Muir, whose research showed that a flock of everyday hens could run circles around a group of superchickens.

We also listened to Margaret Heffernan’s TED Talk. She told us that groups populated with superstars tilt toward dysfunction. I ended my last post by asking whether this meant that teams brimming with deeply talented lawyers are doomed to fail.

In my mind, that’s not the case. Teams overflowing with talent can indeed produce something special. It doesn’t take long to come up with some examples. In the sports world, flash back with me to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, or think of last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that featured LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

Teams of superstars can work, but they require a special environment created by a gifted leader. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg makes this point in Smarter, Better, Faster. He considered a group overflowing with talent and ego — along with a dash of crazy — the original cast of Saturday Night Live.

Stephen Roth VP & General Counsel Jewelry Television

Stephen Roth
VP & General Counsel
Jewelry Television

Well, maybe that group had more than a dash of crazy. Examples of the chaos are easy to come by. When other cast members weren’t home, John Belushi would sneak into their apartments and make spaghetti. Why weren’t they home? In many cases, they were gluing furniture to the ceiling of someone else’s flat.

By any account, this group should have been wildly dysfunctional and gone down in flames. As we all know, the exact opposite happened. After 41 years on the air, SNL remains one of the most successful shows in television history.

So if Heffernan is right, how was that possible? And how could a basketball team featuring the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman ever win championships?

Cue Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL, and Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls.

Michaels set the tone at Saturday Night Live. According to Duhigg, Michaels ensured that voices of all members of the cast were heard and there was a rough equivalence of airtime. In turn, team members mirrored the same attitudes back to each other, even though discussions about the show were frequently direct and tough. Michaels also didn’t hesitate to show concern for his people, often initiating conversations when he sensed they had personal problems.

So it was for the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. Jackson taught teamwork and a system. He educated them about mindfulness and meditation. They became a tight-knit unit.

Duhigg calls this group dynamic “psychological safety,” which is created by an environment in which all are heard and respected, where all contribute. The behavior of the team reflects the behavior of the leader.

So at first glance, Heffernan and Duhigg seem to reach opposite conclusions. Heffernan maintains that teams of superstars are frequently dysfunctional and social capital is an essential ingredient of top-performing teams and companies. Duhigg looks at teams of strong-willed stars and concludes that they can work. He asserts psychological safety is the answer.

If we look closer, these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re really complementary: social capital is a basic building block of psychological safety. Take the cast of SNL. It’s true that Michaels created psychological safety,but he was assisted — apparently by chance — by the social capital that developed among the cast. One of the show’s writers explained the situation to Duhigg: “We didn’t have any money or any clue what we were doing, so we spent all of our time trying to make each other laugh.”

So, what can superchickens and SNL teach us? Two things.

First, we need to populate our teams with care. Talent can’t be the sole criterion. The group dynamic is critical, and it’s true that brilliant, but dysfunctional people, can blow up a team. This is a special challenge for legal teams, since lawyers often seek high degrees of control and have a tendency to work alone. As a profession, we also often dwell on negatives and obstacles, rather than on opportunities and solutions.

Second, a team of superstars can be successful. For that to happen, an equally talented leader is required, one who creates an environment that includes both social capital and psychological safety — and who simultaneously drives results.