The dominance of the Boston Red Sox in the recent baseball season is a testimony to the value of a total team effort. Businesses can learn much from examining the special culture that ensues from meeting the motivational needs of all participants in an organization that seeks to dominate its field.
From the top leadership and its acquisition of what is, arguably, the most talented team in the sport, through encouraging front-line managing and coaching, this team touched all the motivational bases. While much has been written about all the dimensions of the season from spring training through the last World Series game at Dodger Stadium, the topic of the special type of motivation that drove this Red Sox team appeared to be addressed only anecdotally.
“Clone Alex Cora!” might be the cry of well-intentioned faithful fans, but the effort to transport many salient practices of this first-year manager and his coaching staff to other enterprises might be better served by identifying specific practices and organizing them into logical, replicable categories. There is a theory of motivation, actually the leading theory based upon the empirical research support it enjoys throughout the world, that has identified certain psychological needs that all of us have at birth. When these innate needs are satisfied, a very specific type of energy is triggered: intrinsic motivation. This distinct motivation has been found to be linked to many favorable outcomes such as greater job performance and more team success. A review of the ingredients that were clearly being provided by that championship team follows. Other leaders from sports clubs and business groups can take advantage of these techniques, and many have already done so.
The need for autonomy is perhaps best summarized, in this context, as the absence of pressure to comply with expectations. There is no harm done when rules or goals are put in place, although, for best effect, one should explain their purpose to achieve buy-in from those expected to follow them. A plan imposed is a plan opposed.
Another significant variable at play in a competitive activity is anxiety. While an optimal level of nervousness is actually desirable (keeping us sharp and alert), an excessive amount is debilitating. Once again, Alex Cora excels in this managerial art. “We show up every day … we prepare, we play, we turn the page. And we’ve been doing it the whole season,” said Cora in a recent Boston Globe article. When the Red Sox had a slump, Cora just turned the page. One player observed that he never saw him panic or look flustered. Competition itself generates anxiety, whether it is on an athletic field trying to beat an opponent or racing to meet a delivery deadline at the plant or in the office. The artful manager works to mitigate pressures — not add to them.
A second motivational need is for competence. We like to grow in our work — having challenging but doable goals. And we need feedback — positive and critical — to measure growth. Proclamations of “It’s first place or all is a failure” does not bring out best performance. (Even a top basketball star recently conceded that there can only be one top team, but that doesn’t negate a fine season delivered by the second-place team.)
Words of encouragement go a long way to meeting the third need, that for relatedness — mutual care and respect among leaders and teammates. Red Sox players were encouraged to adopt a team-first attitude, and knew that their manager would make the decisions he does based on his reading of situations and needs. There is a lot of trust in play. The Red Sox manager cultivated relationships from the start, meeting with individual players and small groups even before spring training began. A culture of mutual respect and caring grew. Trust is crucial — on the field and in the office.
Alex Cora demonstrated leadership behaviors that tapped into Red Sox players’ motivation. And the players responded enthusiastically to his motivational style. “We’re just riding the wave,” Chris Sale said, according to a Boston Globe story that celebrated the team’s attitude. “Showing up, having fun, and winning games.”
Business can learn much from the humble, yet confident, competent, and relational ways of successful, motivating leaders in sports.
Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation. He has served as a professor with Fordham University, a senior line executive in the television industry, and is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at email@example.com.