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The Case Against Captains

Basketball is Psychology XLIX


Captains are hurting your team’s culture more than they’re helping.

Brad Stevens has an aversion to team captains. In a recent interview, he said he asked himself, “Is it more important to have somebody named captain or is it more important to have everybody feel ownership? I want Jaylen, Jayson, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier to all be willing to speak up, say what they want, and feel like they’re putting their signature on things.”

“If I name two or three people captains, inevitably you’re disempowering more than you’re empowering. And so, one of the things we try to do is say everybody’s a catalyst in their own way. We look at it more as catalysts than captains.”

What makes great teams?

The problem is, the team with the most talent doesn’t always win the championship. On the other hand, we have all seen teams with not very many talented players who exceed expectations and beat the much more talented teams. There is something more than just talented players that make great teams.

Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In other words, whenever individuals are connected and unified, they’re better than they would be as silos.

Workplaces are becoming increasingly more team-oriented, so in 2012 Google set out on a quest to figure out what makes great teams. They spent millions of dollars over the course of several years studying 180 of their teams. Their guesses for what would make great teams were:

  • Strong leaders

  • A certain mix of introverts or extroverts

  • A certain mix of personality types

  • Teammates spent more time together outside of work

  • Teammates who had similar backgrounds, upbringing, interests, or motivations

  • High levels of education

  • A wide array of skill sets

  • Highly talented individuals

They found nothing.

We are talking about Google, the best pattern finders in the world. Who was on the team had no correlation with how successful they were. Instead of looking at “who” was on the team, they decided to look at “how” the team functioned. They started studying the culture of teams; the written and unwritten rules of how they operated. That’s when the magic happened.

Google found 1 variable every successful team had in common: psychological safety.

Psychological safety entailed two things:

1. Conversational Turn-Taking:

On successful teams, members spoke for the same amount of time. Researchers referred to this as, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author, said, “As long as everyone got the chance to talk, the team did well, but if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined. Team performance expert Patrick Lencioni put it best, “If they don’t weigh-in, they’re not going to buy in.”

2. Social Sensitivity:

The good teams all had high “average social sensitivity”, they were good at reading how others were feeling based on their tone, facial expression, and body language. They knew how their teammates were feeling; if they were feeling left out, discouraged, or nervous- they knew.


Successful teams have a culture where everyone is encouraged to speak up. All teammates on great teams feel comfortable holding each other accountable, asking questions, and sharing ideas. Successful teams are non-hierarchical. There are no private meetings for people with a higher rank. On great teams, everyone is seen and everyone is heard. On successful teams, everyone is a leader.

Captains cultivate the opposite of that. Captains imply a hierarchy. Captains imply one player is more important than the other. It’s an unspoken rule that captains are supposed to do all of the talking.