The Best Fight

"[W]e trust each other. We can argue and fight and disagree, but we're going to step onto the court and cheer for each other." - Coach Pop

Growing up just northwest of San Antonio, becoming a fan of the San Antonio Spurs was pretty much a given. Too young to really appreciate the Jordan era, the Spurs streak of success came at the right time for me.

That's not to say I missed out on the painful mid 90's, where the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz routinely dismissed my Spurs from the playoffs, but I have been extremely lucky to have the Spurs as a role model growing up.

One thing I love about the team is their chemistry. There is an amazing amount of trust between everyone, and it's evident by how open their conversations are.

Listen courtside, and you'll hear Coach Pop yelling at his players, from the very best in Tim Duncan to the lowliest bench player. Feedback is built in to their culture, and it pays off on the court.

No matter the argument, there's a deep-seated trust that they're all on the same team, rooting and cheering for each other's success. There's one common goal, and criticism is simply a mechanism towards achieving it.

"Once you learn how to focus on what [Coach Pop is] saying and not how he's saying it -- and that's a big obstacle to get over -- you're in." - Malik Rose

Feedback is hard and it's messy. Insults are said that aren't intended. When working to figure out the right approach, you have to examine every angle of a scenario. Sometimes that means you criticize a factor that isn't actually important.

If you focus solely on what's being said, not why it's being said, then you're missing the point of the discussion. You have to interpret for the speaker and clarify their concerns. Take a step back, let a person express the entirety of their thoughts and ignore the little stuff. You're much more likely to see the root symptom and come up with the right solution.

Teams suffer when the focus is on the delivery and not the intent. Personally, I need to trust that my feedback won't be misinterpreted before I feel comfortable providing it. Having someone misrepresent what I meant is distressing.

If someone hangs on to a specific word I said, or a specific point I made, and uses that to twist my intention, I immediately start to close up. I stop surfacing issues, not because I don't find problems, but because I don't trust my words to express the issues correctly. Expressing feelings and concerns is tough, especially when in the moment.

Make criticism sacred. Anticipate personal feelings and the misinterpretations due to them. Clarify points.

Never criticize someone's thoughts as uncalled-for or improper. That only undermines the trust the team is working so hard to build. Yes, the timing could be wrong, or the critcism too direct, but if that's the case, work on improving the environment. How can the team allow for more opportunities to express themselves at the right time?

"[Coach Pop] just wants to know who he can depend on." - Avery Johnson

Another problem with a culture of "nice" is that it unintentionally encourages covering up minor concerns. People withhold feedback because they don't want to complain. It's safer to hold back criticism and not rock the boat, especially when the problem isn't that bad. But when things start going poorly (and they will), those minor concerns all come out at once.

Tying it back to sports, when a team is doing well, players will naturally hold back criticisms. Even though everyone seems happy, there are hidden thoughts and complaints. It's only natural.

However, when your team ends up on the losing side of one too many fights, everyone is suddenly much more vocal with their thoughts on the performance of others. Unfortunately, that's when the team is in the worst possible position for feedback. That's when arguments get overheated and blame gets passed around. That's when a small problem becomes a big one.

Work to identify concerns up front, otherwise you'll find out about them when you're not ready. Build a culture that encourages constant feedback. One that isn't afraid of upsetting someone. Lively debates pay off in the hard times, the times when you need it most.

"What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable;" - Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc

I believe giving meaningful feedback is crucial to a team's success over the long term. Build it into your everyday. Work on it when things are going well. Take a lack of criticical feedback as a bad sign. No matter the situation, people have opinions. Work to hear what they are.

Enjoy this content? Check out my upcoming book, The Non-Conformist Leader.