The Hot Hand Phenomenon of Teamwork: Success Begets Success

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Source: Pexels/Creative Commons

Harmony and synchronicity are more important to a team’s success than hubris and superstars, according to a new study on the science of teamwork conducted by an international team of business-based researchers through the lens of sports competition

The eclectic team of researchers from Evanston, Udaipur, and Vienna who conducted this study found that once a group of players mastered a form of frictionless teamwork—in which they automatically thought and moved as a symbiotic unit in ways that resulted in success—the teammates would often go on to create a winning streak. If a team won once, the "hot hand phenomenon" seemed to kick in, and they were likely to win again. This paper, “Prior Shared Success Predicts Victory in Team Competitions,” was published December 3 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

One notable aspect of this research is that it debunks the so-called “superstar effect” which posits that having more A-list talent on your team is a guarantee for success. In fact, the qualitative group dynamics of a squad were more influential on a team’s odds of winning than adding up the quantitative talent/skill of each team player. The sum of raw talent couldn’t compete with the psychological power and physical prowess created by a well-orchestrated “winning” collective.

This research helps to explain why pairing two top singles players together for a doubles match in tennis doesn’t necessarily guarantee success over two lower-ranked players. During a doubles match, it’s easy to see how the interpersonal dynamics of two tennis players as a team is an unpredictable form of racket-sport alchemy. Sometimes, there’s a "Shazam!" moment when you realize that two individuals who are "so-so" players alone make an unbeatable dynamic duo. Interestingly, these pairs are often biological brothers. Even in Davis Cup events, a couple of relatively unknown players can defeat a pair of household-name superstars with less chemistry. 

The secret sauce for continued success as a team in sports, business, or any collaborative pursuit, seems to be fine-tuning a “within-team” winning formula and then becoming like a well-oiled machine that can repeat the same peak performance again and again. As the researchers sum up, “Our results show that prior shared success between team members significantly improves the odds of the team winning in all sports beyond the talents of individuals.”

"We are the champions, my friends." —Freddie Mercury of Queen

The findings of this research are inadvertently summed up in the iconic winning-team anthem, “We Are the Champions” by Queen. Serendipitously, the recent film, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” about the group dynamics within a very successful “rock ’n’ roll” band, reaffirms the latest findings on the importance of within-team dynamics and that success begets success. Once Queen worked out their kinks and had their first platinum album in 1975 (after three moderately-successful albums in the early 1970s), they went on to have a phenomenal "hot hand" streak of multiple platinum albums in a row.

As it turns out, the most important psychological component of this song being a universal, triumphant anthem isn’t the chest-pounding, ‘us vs. them’ exclamation, “‘Cause we are the champions of the world!” But rather, the strong sense of camaraderie summed up in the teammate-to-teammate, first-person plural line, “We are the champions, my friends.”

Below is a video of "We Are the Champions" being performed at Live Aid by Freddie Mercury and his Queen bandmates at Wembley Stadium in 1985. 

Previous shared success increases the odds a team will win again in the future. 
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New research on the science of teamwork suggests that the "hot hand phenomenon" of previous success increasing the odds of future success is not a fallacy.
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Satyam Mukherjee, Yun Huang, Julia Neidhardt, Brian Uzzi, and Noshir Contractor. "Prior Shared Success Predicts Victory in Team Competitions." Nature Human Behaviour (First published: December 3, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0460-y


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